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American 737-800 aircraft at Washington Reagan National Airport (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Ryan Ewing)

Opinion: The U.S. Should Reconsider How it Handles Unruly Passenger Incidents

As a country, the U.S. needs to seriously re-evaluate how it deals with the rise in unruly passenger cases onboard flights nationwide. An astonishing 5,981 cases of unruly behavior onboard commercial aircraft were reported to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in 2021. Despite this high number, 350 enforcement actions were issued by the FAA’s investigations office.

Only 6% of these unruly passenger cases were enforced by the aviation regulator in 2021. This is a classic example of agency bureaucracy getting in the way of meaningful action and the sharp rise in unruly behavior onboard commercial airliners is teetering on the edge of a broader aviation safety issue.

A Recent Incident with Little Accountability

On Tuesday, an American Airlines flight from San Pedro Sula, Honduras to Miami was scheduled to leave on time until a passenger decided to rush into the flight deck at the gate, damaging several critical flight controls. The male passenger then proceeded to try and exit through one of the cockpit windows before the pilots stopped him.

An unconfirmed image following the incident showed significant damage to the throttle quadrant, making the Boeing 737-800 no longer operational. As a result of this brief incident, the airline ferried an empty aircraft to San Pedro Sula to rescue stranded passengers. According to one airline source, the damage will require significant time and cost to repair, not to mention the original cost of ferrying an empty airplane to South America.

But what happened to this individual you may ask? Next to nothing. Per an Associated Press report, the man was released by the Honduran authorities, who said the airline did not press charges.

 

“He was freed because the airline did not press charges,” said Security Secretary spokesman Edgardo Barahona to the AP. “The aggression toward the pilot and the crew of the airline was not serious.”

On the contrary, an airline spokesman confirmed to the AP that they will press charges, though it is unclear how it’ll go about that given the complexity of international jurisdiction and Honduras’ civil law legal system.

To me, this incident points to a clear safety and security issue. What if the individual were to have done the same thing inflight? Attempted flight deck breaches have occurred in the past year among U.S. carriers.

In this case, it’s more than likely the man will face any legal action or charges. At most, he’ll be blacklisted by the airline. However, this lack of prosecution in these types of cases is all too common.

Why Now?

In the past and prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, unruly passenger incidents that made their way through the news cycle were few and far between. Now, they’re overtaking it. But why?

The days of the TSA PreCheck lines being longer than general screening are long gone as business travel continues to dip. Selectively lower fares and cabin fever has driven people to fly who otherwise wouldn’t. Leisure travelers make up the majority of passengers these days.

Generally speaking, these types of passengers typically do not travel often, and the added stress of being told what to do constantly only fan the flames. And then, throw mask requirements in the mix.

FAA data indicates that 4,290 of last year’s reported incidents were mask-related, over 70%. The polarization regarding mask-wearing and the different requirements per state certainly isn’t helping the case.

Who Regulates What?

There are tons of regulatory agencies and law enforcement agencies involved in U.S. aviation. From the TSA, FAA, FBI, and local law enforcement to name a few, the enforcement of unruly passenger incidents has turned into a game of regulatory hot potato.

Agencies like the FAA and Transportation Security Administration (TSA) are specifically enabled by Congress to enforce certain incidents. Their scope can often be wide, but agency inspectors are often careful about stepping out of bounds. And – in my opinion at least – checks and balances on these agencies is a very good thing.

Nevertheless, talking about the two primary U.S. commercial aviation regulators – the TSA and FAA – it can get murky involving bad behavior onboard flights. The TSA is authorized under 49 USC 114 and the FAA under 49 USC 106. Neither of these agencies has direct criminal enforcement authorization and can usually only assess enforcement actions, which may or may not come with a civil penalty.

The TSA and FAA often default to their fellow government agencies to pursue criminal enforcement. If their respective chief counsel or inspector general’s office deems it appropriate, cases will be referred over to the DOJ, or the FBI (which falls under the DOJ), for criminal charges. In the case of disruptive passengers at least, only 37 cases were referred by the FAA in 2021, according to CNN.

The TSA will more than likely refer cases to local airport law enforcement, which is what happens when an individual is found to possess a firearm at a screening checkpoint. Indeed, the individual might get a slap on the risk depending on state laws and a so-called Notice of Violation (NOV) from TSA headquarters in the mail, but that’s about it. Transportation Security Officers (TSO) are not empowered to arrest or charge an individual.

That is why airport police are seen in videos removing disruptive passengers at the air carrier’s request. Often, the offender will be charged, booked, but released later. This all boils down to state and even municipal laws.

Aviation is well-protected under U.S. Code (i.e. 49 USC 46504 – Interference with flight crew members and attendants). Statutes such as this one allow for criminal charges, but pursuing those can often be tricky with too many agencies involved. Nonetheless, when these cases are actively pursued, they can yield full accountability.

For example, in December 2021, Vyvianna M. Quinonez, a Sacramento, Calif. resident, pled guilty after assaulting a Southwest Airlines flight attendant, sending her to the hospital with three chipped teeth and several other injuries. This high-profile will go to sentencing in federal court in March.

So, What’s The Solution?

The solution to this surge of onboard unruliness ultimately falls on the private sector. Regulators are tripping over their own red tape and it’s time for the industry as a whole to take aggressive action. This should start with a unified blacklisting database among operators to bar anyone who doesn’t comply with crew instructions or acts out of line.

In addition, airline lobbying groups should push harder for increased criminal penalties against offenders. Indeed, even with measures in place, passengers will still act out, but basic actions and a solid public-private partnership will significantly reduce onboard incidents.

The essence of a foundational aviation safety culture centers around the totality of the operation. This includes passengers onboard an aircraft, especially when the way in which they behave harms the flight’s safety profile. Aviation regulators and operators need to take a proactive, rather than a reactive approach to this ongoing issue before an unruly passenger event takes a more serious turn.

Author

  • Ryan founded AirlineGeeks.com back in February 2013 and has amassed considerable experience in the aviation sector. His work has been featured in several publications and news outlets, including CNN, WJLA, CNET, and Business Insider. During his time in the industry, he's worked in roles pertaining to airport operations and customer service while holding a B.S. in Air Transportation Management from Arizona State University along with pursuing a concurrent MBA and law program. Ryan has experience in several facets of the industry from behind the yoke of a Cessna 172 to interviewing airline industry executives. In addition to supporting AirlineGeeks, Ryan works full-time in the aviation industry.

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