The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on Thursday said it wants airports to deal with unruly passengers after a surge of attacks and threats against flight attendants amid COVID-19 masking mandates on airplanes.
The agency previously pledged to take more aggressive action against passengers who go against safety rules. But now, the FAA wants airports to tamp down the bad behavior.
“While the FAA has levied civil fines against unruly passengers, it has no authority to prosecute criminal cases,” FAA Administrator Steve Dickson wrote to airport officials around the country in a letter released on Thursday.
The FAA stated that it’s received 3,715 reports of unruly passengers since the beginning of 2021 and made 628 investigations. But in 2019, the agency initiated fewer than 150 investigations into unruly passenger behavior.
Meanwhile, dozens of Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officers have been assaulted since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the agency.
After officers are called to terminals and onto planes, allegedly unruly passengers are generally let go without any charges, Dickson noted. The agency chief said that there needs to be more stringent punishment for rulebreakers.
“When this occurs,” his letter continued, “we miss a key opportunity to hold unruly passengers accountable for their unacceptable and dangerous behavior.”
Previously, airline labor unions have written to the Department of Justice to ask the agency to pursue criminal charges against some alleged offenders.
Dickson’s letter, however, didn’t acknowledge that certain COVID-19 restrictions on travel imposed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), including mandatory mask-wearing, may trigger outbursts in certain passengers.
About three-fourths of the incidents reported in 2021 by the FAA involve passengers who don’t comply with rules requiring them to wear masks inside planes and airports. Last month, the agency said that of the 3,271 complaints of unruly passenger behavior this year, about 2,475 of them involved passengers who didn’t want to wear a mask.
There have been incidents, too, involving flight attendants who threatened passengers who don’t wear masks.
A Spirit Airlines flight attendant last year was seen threatening that passengers who don’t wear masks would be jailed, fined $250,000, and be put on a global no-fly list—which Spirit Airlines later said is a false statement that the company doesn’t endorse. In a later incident in March 2021, a family was kicked off a Spirit Airlines plane after their toddler, a 2-year-old, wouldn’t put on a mask. The airline also disputed some of the family’s claims.
Airlines have also been struggling to keep up with summer vacation travel demands, leading to mass delays and flight cancelations.
This week, Spirit Airlines canceled nearly 300 flights across the United States and cited weather as well as “operational challenges.”