WASHINGTON (AP) — Attorney General Merrick Garland directed U.S. attorneys across the country to swiftly prioritize prosecution of federal crimes that happen on commercial flights as federal officials face a historic number of investigations into passenger behavior.
Garland’s memo, issued Wednesday, emphasizes that the Justice Department is committed to aggressively prosecuting violent passengers who assault crew members or endanger the safety of other passengers. Federal law bans passengers from interfering in flight crew matters, such as assaulting, intimidating, and threatening members.
Garland stated that such passengers are more dangerous than employees. “They prevent the performance of critical duties that help ensure safe air travel. Similarly, when passengers commit violent acts against other passengers in the close confines of a commercial aircraft, the conduct endangers everyone aboard,” he said.
In the memo, it is also noted that numerous incidents were reported to The FBI by the Federal Aviation Administration — it investigates some flight disturbances and can issue civil fines to disruptive passengers — as part of an “information-sharing protocol” between the two agencies.
An FAA statement earlier in the month stated that it has launched 950 investigations this year into passengers’ behavior on planes. This is the most number of investigations launched by the FAA since 1995, when it began keeping records. The agency has averaged 136 investigations per year over the period 2016 to 2020.
Also, the agency stated that it had referred 37 casesInciting unruly passenger airline to FBI for possible criminal prosecution, since January was the peak in disruptions to flights.
“The unacceptable disruptive behavior that we’re seeing is a serious safety threat to flights, and we’re committed to our partnership with the DOJ to combat it,” FAA Administrator Steve Dickson said.
The federal government has been urged to press more vigorously by the unions representing airlines and other workers. More than 5,000 unruly passenger incidents were reported by airlines this year. Over 3,600 cases involved passengers who refuse to wear masks, as required under federal regulations.
“The Department of Justice is committed to using its resources to do its part to prevent violence, intimidation, threats of violence and other criminal behavior that endangers the safety of passengers, flight crews and flight attendants on commercial aircraft,” Garland said in the statement.
The international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, AFL-CIO, Sara Nelson, also applauded Garland’s announcement.
“Consequences need to be swift and clear to keep travel safe and protect the people on the frontlines who have worked through all the stresses of this pandemic,” Nelson said in a statement. “We want to take people to New Orleans, Seattle, Fort Lauderdale, or to see Grandma. We don’t want to send them to prison. But, the DOJ can now make it clear that’s where you’re going if you refuse to cooperate and act out violently on a plane.”