Of the 4,385 reported incidents of air rage this year, only one person has been criminally charged

Flight attendant mask covid
Flight attendants they have gotten sick less due to pandemic-era cleaning protocols. Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
  • The FAA has received 4,385 reports of unruly passengers and opened 789 investigations this year.
  • Of those, only one case has had criminal charges filed by the Department of Justice.
  • Arline workers told Congress the lack of criminal enforcement puts public safety at risk.
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In a year with record levels of conflict aboard commercial airlines, the US Federal Aviation Administration has posted some shocking numbers: 4,385 reports of unruly passengers; 789 investigations; 162 enforcement cases; $US1.1 ($AU2) million in fines.

But there’s one number that lags noticeably behind the rest: criminal charges for passengers who have assaulted flight crews or otherwise interfered with their duties.

As a civil authority, the FAA cannot criminally charge anyone, so criminal cases in aviation are the purview of the FBI and the Department of Justice.

To say there is a hitch in the enforcement process would be an understatement.

So far, after thousands of reports and hundreds of in-flight incident investigations this year alone, the only person to be charged is Vyvianna Quinonez, who was filmed in May punching a flight attendant in the face as a Southwest flight approached San Diego.

According to a complaint filed earlier this month in US District Court in San Diego, Quinonez was also charged with interfering with flight crew members and attendants. Quinonez reportedly told law enforcement at the time of her arrest that she was acting in self defense.

Federal aviation regulations allow the FAA to impose fines of up to $US35,000 ($AU47,942), but the criminal penalties – up to 20 years in prison if convicted of interfering with the operation of an aircraft – require the DOJ to prosecute a case. A DOJ spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Sara Nelson, International President of the Association of Flight Attendants, told the House Subcommittee on Aviation that members of her union are frustrated by the lack of meaningful penalties when they try to enforce the rules in the air.

“We tell them [passengers] that it is a federal offense to not comply with crew member instructions,” Nelson quoted one member as saying. “Then the plane is met by airline supervisors or airport law enforcement and the passenger gets a slap on the wrist and sent on their way.”

Nelson called the numbers “staggering” and predicted that there would be more incidents in 2021 than in the entire history of commercial aviation if trends continue.

For its part, the FAA has taken steps to escalate the severity of consequences for bad behavior in-flight under a zero-tolerance policy Administrator Steve Dickson rolled out earlier this year. Under the new policy, counseling and warnings are off the table – all passengers found guilty of unruly behavior will be fined.

But getting the criminal side of the equation to work requires even greater coordination of public, private, state, local, and federal departments than has been happening so far. In an open letter to airport leaders, Dickson begged for greater cooperation from local law enforcement to lay the groundwork for cases that the DOJ can use.

“Every week, we see situations in which law enforcement was asked to meet an aircraft at the gate following an unruly passenger incident,” he wrote. “Many of these passengers were interviewed by local police and released without criminal charges of any kind.”

“When this occurs, we miss a key opportunity to hold unruly passengers accountable for their unacceptable and dangerous behavior,” he added.