The FAA has recorded an increase in incidents where airline passengers have disrupted flights with threatening or violent behaviour. Interfering with the duties of an airline crew member violates federal law. This exchange between a pilot and air traffic control during an incident illustrates the issue.
Federal Aviation Regulations 91.11, 121.580 and 135.120 state that “no person may assault, threaten, intimidate, or interfere with a crewmember in the performance of the crewmember’s duties aboard an aircraft being operated.” On 13 January, 2021, FAA Administrator Steve Dickson signed an order directing a stricter legal enforcement policy against unruly airline passengers in the wake of recent, troubling incidents. Historically, the agency has addressed unruly-passenger incidents using a variety of methods ranging from warnings and counseling to civil penalties.
Under the new zero-tolerance policy, the FAA will not address these cases with warnings or counseling. The agency will pursue legal enforcement action against any passenger who assaults, threatens, intimidates or interferes with airline crew members. The repercussions for passengers who engage in unruly behaviour can be substantial. They can be fined by the FAA or prosecuted on criminal charges. The FAA can propose up to US$37,000 per violation for unruly passenger cases. One incident can result in multiple violations.