US gives priority to prosecution of unruly airline passengers

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Attorney General Merrick B. Garland on Wednesday ordered prosecutors to prioritize the prosecution of federal crimes committed on commercial aircraft as millions of travelers make their way across the United States for Thanksgiving, the country’s most traveled holiday.

As travel in the United States approaches prepandemic levels, the federal government has stepped up prosecutions for crimes on flights, especially by passengers refusing to adhere to Covid protocols. In some cases, passengers have attacked or threatened flight attendants.

Federal law prohibits attacks, intimidation and threats of violence that hinder employees on flights, as well as other criminal acts that can occur during a flight.

Reports sometimes submitted by flight attendants to the Aviation Safety Reporting System database describe a chaotic, unhinged workplace where passengers regularly abuse airline employees.

“Passengers who attack, intimidate or threaten flight crews and flight attendants do more than harm those employees; they prevent the performance of critical tasks that help ensure safe air travel,” Mr Garland said in a statement on Wednesday.

According to the Federal Aviation Administration, there have been 5,338 unruly passenger reports and 3,856 mask-related incidents in the past year.

Historically, the FAA has handled these cases with civil penalties, warnings, and counseling. However, under the current zero-tolerance policy on unruly passengers instituted in January, the FAA has chosen to impose civil penalties on an unruly passenger. A passenger can be fined up to $37,000 per violation and can be subpoenaed for multiple violations at once.

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