On January 2, 2021, a man aboard a Southwest Airlines flight bound for Kansas City, Missouri, from Orlando, Florida, was detained by law enforcement for allegedly assaulting fellow passengers. According to the report from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), he became violent “because someone in his row would not change seats to accommodate his travel partner.” The FAA fined him $32,500.
The next day, on a Frontier Airlines flight that had just landed in New York City, a passenger allegedly attempted to gain entry to the flight deck while deplaning, assaulting two flight attendants and threatening to kill one of them. The captain called for law enforcement to meet the man upon exiting the plane. He was fined $30,000.
Reports of air-rage and disruptive behavior such as these on US airlines hit an all-time high in 2021, according to the FAA. On January 13, 2021, the FAA implemented its “zero tolerance” policy.
That year, the FAA received 5,973 reports of unruly passengers from airlines. That was up 492% from the 1,009 reports in 2020. But that spike didn’t just reflect a rebound from an unusually slow 2020 due to COVID-19. In 2019, there were 1,161 incidents. There were 899 in 2018 and 544 in 2017.
The FAA says its zero tolerance policy was a response to increasing unruly passenger incidents. According to the agency, “These incidents have stemmed both from passengers’ refusals to wear masks and from recent violence at the US Capitol,” referring to the January 6, 2021 event in which protesters stormed the Capitol building.
By August 2021, the FAA had calculated that nearly 75% of reported incidents involved passengers refusing to comply with the federal face mask mandate. That rule was enacted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on February 1, 2021 even though many airlines enforced their own face mask mandates in 2020. On April 18, 2022, that policy became no longer enforceable due to a court order. Today, passengers do not have to wear a face mask on an airplane.
The zero tolerance policy was meant to be temporary, but it became permanent on April 20, 2022.
Since its adoption in 2021, and combined with a public awareness campaign, the number of unruly passenger reports has decreased. From 2021 to 2022 it decreased 59%. As of August 6, 2023, the FAA has received 1,177 reports of unruly passengers, compared to 2,455 for all of 2022.
Historically, the FAA relied on a variety of actions against unruly passengers, from issuing a warning to counseling. Under its zero tolerance policy, the FAA has adopted stricter penalties for any passenger who interferes with the duties of a crewmember or disrupts a flight with what the agency considers threatening or violent behavior.
The agency now pursues legal enforcement by referring cases to the FBI for criminal prosecution. It can also impose fines — the largest being $81,950, issued to a passenger in 2022. That case alleges that a woman assaulted a flight attendant and tried to open the cabin door on an American Airlines flight from Dallas to Charlotte, North Carolina. After she was restrained, the passenger “spit at, headbutted, bit and tried to kick the crew and other passengers.”
While the overall reports of unruly passengers has gone down year-over-year from its peak in 2021, cases where the FAA has pursued legal enforcement action have increased from 350 in 2021 to 567 in 2022. Fines levied against passengers are also up from $5 million in 2021 to $8.4 million in 2022.
The FAA is the nation’s aircraft safety and regulatory agency, but it cannot ban passengers from flying and it does not put passengers on no-fly lists. Airline crews report incidents of unruly passengers to the agency. From there, the FAA can refer cases to the FBI.
Airline carriers can ban passengers from their planes, but those bans do not carry over to other airlines.
The FBI maintains the nation’s only no-fly list, which consists of known or suspected terrorists. Congress has proposed creating a new database of unruly passengers. The bill would create a no-fly list, giving the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) the authority to ban those who have been convicted of crimes aboard commercial airlines. It also would allow the TSA to decide how long a person would be banned from flying.
Currently, the FAA shares passenger information with TSA, which may decide to revoke that person’s TSA PreCheck eligibility, if they have it.
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