As the holiday travel season arrives and amid a spike in disturbances aboard aircraft due to the federal mask mandate for air travel, Attorney General Merrick Garland on Wednesday ordered states to crack down on unruly passengers.
Garland issued a Justice Department memo directing U.S. Attorneys to prioritize prosecuting flight passengers who “endanger the safety of passengers, flight crews and flight attendants.”
“Passengers who assault, intimidate or threaten violence against flight crews and flight attendants do more than harm those employees; they prevent the performance of critical duties that help ensure safe air travel,” Garland said in the memo.
“Similarly, when passengers commit violent acts against other passengers in the close confines of a commercial aircraft, the conduct endangers everyone aboard,” the attorney general added.
The memo also noted that federal law bans “assaults, intimidation and threats of violence that interfere with flight crews and flight attendants.”
The memo came a day before Thanksgiving Day. An estimated 53.4 million people were expected to travel for Thanksgiving between Wednesday and Sunday, according to AAA. The number of holiday travelers was predicted to rise 13% over 2020, returning to nearly pre-pandemic levels.
“This holiday season, millions will travel across the nation and around the world on commercial aircraft. The Department of Justice is concerned about a rise in criminal behavior occurring on commercial flights that endangers the safety of passengers, flight crews, and flight attendants,” Garland wrote in his letter to U.S. attorneys as well as the FBI director.
A July report from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) found a 500% spike in incidents involving unruly passengers aboard flights, mainly due to passengers who protested wearing a face mask.
On Monday, the FAA said that out of a total of more than 5,300 unruly passenger reports, at least 3,856 incidents were related to passengers wearing face masks in compliance with the federal mask mandate aboard aircraft.
In 2021, there have been on average 12 “inflight disturbances” per 1 million screened passengers, according to the Transportation Security Administration. That figure is six times higher than the average number of such disturbances in 2019.
Meanwhile, so far this year it has received nearly 300 reports of passenger disturbances due to alcohol and intoxication, according to FAA data.
“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 his Wednesday directive.
In response to the high number of complaints, the FAA has launched more than 1,000 investigations this year alone.
“We want to take people to New Orleans, Seattle, Fort Lauderdale, or to see Grandma. We do not want to take them to jail,” Sara Nelson, Association of Flight Attendants-CWA international president told Axios.
“DOJ can now make it clear that’s where you’re going if you refuse to cooperate and act out violently on a plane,” Nelson said.