Unruly airplane passengers are straining the system for keeping peace in the sky
After consuming several beers and a couple of shots before takeoff, a miner started urinating near his seat on an Alaska Airlines flight, an FBI special agent recounted. Instructed to cover himself, he responded: “I have to pee.”
Two weeks later, a shirtless musician with a history of mental illness tried to fling open an exit door during a flight to Los Angeles as five people fought to stop him. “He advised that he wanted to kill everyone, including himself, on the aircraft,” another agent wrote.
Both men were arrested earlier this year in Denver, charged with the same broad federal crime: interference with flight crew members and attendants.
They were, in many ways, the exceptions.
The system for keeping the peace in America’s skies is creaking under the pressure of what airlines and regulators say is an unprecedented proliferation of misbehavior.
The Federal Aviation Administration has received more than 3,400 reports of “unruly” passengers this year. But despite launching a “zero-tolerance” enforcement policy in January — amid a rise in conflicts often tied to mask requirements in the air — the agency said that as of mid-July it had “completely closed” just seven cases.
The sprawling, multitiered system for enforcing regulations and federal laws covering passengers can take years to play out. As travel rebounds, that structure is being strained by confrontations fueled by alcohol, hostility to mask mandates and small conflicts that careen out of control. One passenger hit a woman holding an infant amid an apparent dispute over a window shade. Another ran through business class and stomped on a flight attendant’s foot after the power outlet at her seat wouldn’t charge her phone, according to court records.
The system involves airline employees, FAA inspectors and lawyers, Transportation Department judges, local authorities, state and federal courts, FBI agents and U.S. attorneys, who all have roles in a sometimes messy and protracted process.
The incidents that take place miles high in pressurized cabins are filled with many of the same pathologies and clashes that occur on the ground.
A review of federal cases by The Washington Post points to alcohol, drug use and mental illness as key factors in outbursts that have terrified passengers and crew members, sometimes leaving them hospitalized. The tools for dealing with those problems in the air are more limited than on land.
Court records describe ad hoc policing teams made up of passengers recruited by flight attendants to help subdue rampaging fellow fliers using plastic handcuffs and seat belt straps. The records detail several instances of passengers trying to pry open doors on planes, leading to scenes of panic and violence.
“I am waiting for a signal,” a distressed passenger declared on a Hawaiian Airlines flight from Los Angeles in October before lunging for the emergency door and smashing a flight attendant’s head against it, causing a “ping pong ball sized hematoma” on her temple, federal prosecutors said.
After the third lunge, passengers and crew members zip-tied the man’s ankles to a seat. His lawyer said he “was in an altered state of mind when he tried to exit a commercial aircraft mid-flight. … This activity was not violent and was not driven by anger towards any other person.”
The flight attendant’s injuries, after she “properly blocked him,” were minor, the lawyer added. Authorities said that after the man’s arrest, he choked a nurse at a Hawaii hospital until he lost consciousness. The passenger, in his early 30s, was detained for eight months and released to his parents with an order that he take medication pending a March trial.
Earlier this month, a woman tried to open an airplane door on a flight from Dallas, then bit a flight attendant, according to American Airlines. She was duct-taped to her seat. In May, a Southwest Airlines flight attendant had two teeth knocked out, allegedly by a passenger who refused to remain seated.
Aviation experts say cases of “air rage” are nothing new, but verbal attacks are turning physical more quickly.
“What we’re really seeing is an increased level of hostility on the aircraft, which is something I don’t think we’ve ever seen before in this industry,” said Paul Hartshorn, spokesman for the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, which represents American Airlines employees. “It’s just incredibly dangerous.”
Federal prosecutions in cases where “interference with flight crew members and attendants” is the lead charge were down sharply in the past decade following a rise after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, according to a Post examination of federal prosecution data housed at Syracuse University, raising questions about resources and priorities.
For most of the 2000s, there were more than 50 such prosecutions annually, with case counts sometimes topping 70, according to data compiled by the university’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse. Over the past decade, that number has been in the teens and 20s each year, according to the research center, which built a vast database through decades of public records requests.
The Justice Department said prosecutions under the “interference” statute — by its count there were 20 in fiscal year 2019, 16 in 2020 and 14 through this month in 2021 — do not reflect the scope of its efforts because other charges are also used. At a Senate hearing in June, Attorney General Merrick Garland said the Justice Department takes the recent onboard assaults “extremely seriously.”
“Even if not intended to bring the plane down, you can imagine the kind of pandemonium on planes that we’ve seen in some of these videos that people have taken that can cause an incredibly dangerous accident,” Garland said.
In a June letter to Garland, a consortium of airline industry and labor groups called on the Justice Department to “direct federal prosecutors to dedicate resources for egregious cases.” It noted inconsistencies in which cases are prosecuted in different jurisdictions, and said more criminal prosecutions are needed. The department is reviewing the letter, an agency spokesman said.
In selecting which airborne cases to pursue, federal prosecutors said they weigh damage to victims, airlines and threats to public safety. Considerations include whether flights were diverted, lives were endangered, the quality of the evidence and a suspect’s mental health status, federal prosecutors said.
In Congress, some lawmakers want the Justice Department to create a new “no-fly list” for passengers convicted of assault or who have paid civil penalties in such cases. Airlines, which have banned more than 2,700 customers for refusing to wear masks, don’t share information about customers who cause problems. Someone barred by one carrier can simply book a flight on another airline.
The incidents can leave a lasting mark.
Delta Air Lines flight attendant Eunice DePinto was shoved after trying to pull a first-class passenger off the airplane door he was fighting to open on a 2017 flight from Seattle. A second flight attendant was punched in the face, prosecutors said. The raging passenger — and another customer who aided flight attendants — were smashed in the head with bottles of red wine during the struggle, according to court records. Airline employees said the pressure at high altitude would have kept the door from opening, but it could have opened as the plane descended.
“In the galley there were flying objects, toppled galley equipment, yelling, physical blows and blood,” DePinto told a federal court in Washington state.
Six passengers eventually cuffed and subdued the Florida man, Joseph Hudek IV, who pleaded guilty to interfering with a flight crew and assault resulting in serious bodily injury. Hudek was sentenced to two years in prison and barred from commercial flights until next year.
“My life is changed forever,” the assaulted flight attendant told the court. “I am always aware of passengers — where they are and what they are doing at times — to the point of distrust.”
Airlines have sought restitution from convicted passengers, although results have been mixed.
Hudek, whose consulting doctor said he had a psychotic episode after eating cannabis gummies, was ordered to pay restitution of $67,000, including $60,000 to Delta. As of January, a court report indicated he still owed the airline $59,000 and was making regular payments of $171.
A passenger on a 2019 flight from Las Vegas falsely told a flight attendant that a woman on the plane had a knife, prompting the pilot to make an emergency landing in Denver. He pleaded guilty to interfering with a flight crew and was sentenced to the nearly six months he had served. American Airlines asked a judge to order him to pay $32,800 in restitution. Among the costs cited by American: $6,119 for fuel, $13,623 for “passenger inconvenience,” including vouchers, and $2,497 for “goodwill lost,” according to court filings.
The Illinois man’s lawyer said he earned $125 a week collecting scrap before his father’s truck broke down and that he wouldn’t be able to pay. The judge rejected the airline’s request and ordered him to pay $100.
As flight attendants endured taunts and abuse last year over airline mask requirements, the FAA resisted calls to help with enforcement, reflecting the Trump administration’s approach to the pandemic. But after increasing reports of conflicts and rowdy groups returning home from the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol, FAA Administrator Stephen Dickson ordered stricter enforcement to tame the behavior, marking the start of a more aggressive approach.
Over the past six months, the FAA has taken “much quicker and transparent [action] on this issue than we have seen in decades,” said Taylor Garland, spokeswoman for the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, the nation’s largest flight attendants union. “It’s the first time flight attendants feel like there are real consequences on the ground for unruly behavior on our planes.”
Still, the vast number of cases and messy mechanics of trying to ensure those consequences stick have, at times, overwhelmed the agency.
Part of the FAA’s latest strategy to combat the rise in airplane incidents is to publicize large proposed penalties and promote a message of deterrence on social media. “You could have spent $35,000 on a brand new truck. But instead you are paying a fine because you punched a flight attendant,” said one agency tweet.
The FAA said three-quarters of its 3,400 unruly passenger reports are related to a federal mask requirement on planes and public transportation, even though it often takes more than refusing to wear a mask for the FAA to take action.
Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, said that after more than a year grappling with the global pandemic, flight attendants’ stress levels are high and passengers are on edge.
“People get on a plane and they’re taking it out on each other, or most commonly, on the flight attendants,” she said. “And what we’re really seeing is that you’re having like entire airplanes full of people who are aggressive rather than the one-off passenger.”
Rick Domingo, who oversees onboard safety as executive director of the FAA’s Flight Standards Service, echoed that sentiment.
“It used to be individual events,” Domingo said during a recent FAA forum. Now, “it’s group events. You have a number of people exhibiting that same behavior on aircraft.”
As of July 13, the FAA had opened 555 investigations in unruly passenger cases — triple its total for all of last year. It has taken action against passengers in 80 cases.
That’s just the beginning of a labyrinthine process written into FAA regulations, in which the agency sends a Notice of Proposed Civil Penalty. Passengers can try to demonstrate they did not violate FAA regulations; seek a shrunken penalty; or request an informal or formal hearing and an appeal.
While international aviation groups for years have noted concerns about passenger problems aboard aircraft, the recent U.S. surge appears to be an outlier.
In Canada, where passengers who refuse to comply with crew member instructions face fines up to $100,000 (about $80,000 in U.S. dollars) and as much as five years’ imprisonment, the nation had recorded 14 reports of unruly passengers through May. In 2020, 73 incidents were reported.
“Canadian airlines have not seen a significant uptick in the number of passengers acting out on flights,” said Frederica Dupuis, a spokeswoman for Transport Canada.
Willie Walsh, director general of the International Air Transport Association, a trade group that represents nearly 300 carriers worldwide, said “it’s not completely isolated to the U.S., but it is predominantly a U.S. domestic issue that we’re witnessing at the moment.”
In addition to masks, alcohol has been a contributor to bad behavior. Some airlines aren’t serving alcohol during the pandemic, so some passengers are drinking before boarding or bringing their own, which is against federal rules.
Of the 43 enforcement cases this year for which the FAA has made some details public, nearly one-third involved alcohol. About the same number involved alleged assaults. A flight had to be diverted from its original destination in eight cases.
Some aviation industry officials said there are early signs that the frequency of incidents could be falling, but it’s too soon to know whether that signals a downward trend.
In the past, the FAA might rely on warning letters or counseling to deal with passenger misbehavior. But under its “zero-tolerance” policy toward passengers interfering with crew members, aviation safety inspectors are required to fill out investigative reports that could lead to sanctions.
“It’s one strike and you’re out,” said Arjun Garg, a former chief counsel at the FAA who is a partner at law firm Hogan Lovells. “There’s no more of just counseling an offending passenger about behaving better. They are immediately reaching for the hammer.”
Behind the scenes, the agency is struggling to keep up with the barrage. FAA officials are seeking to better prioritize the torrent of reports coming from airlines and rushing to train personnel on the basics of building cases that can stand up to challenge. The investigative process can be slow.
“We have to collect evidence, do due diligence to prove our case,” the FAA said in a statement. “This takes time.”
An FAA document tracking potential cases shows that information provided by airline employees sometimes falls short, undercutting would-be investigations.
The FAA has issued public statements touting more than $680,000 in proposed penalties this year. But the agency has sometimes struggled to force passengers to pay more limited amounts in the past, raising questions about the success of its enforcement push.
The FAA is seeking $10,500 from a Southwest Airlines passenger who allegedly made a maskless phone call while the plane sat on a runway in February, then swore at flight attendants before being removed.
But in a case resolved in June, a D.C. man made a call one hour into a November 2018 flight to Minneapolis. The FAA sought a $5,000 penalty, but after pursuing the case for more than 18 months — and an appeal by the passenger to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit — the FAA agreed to settle for an undisclosed amount.
Following an unfavorable ruling by an administrative law judge last year, the FAA settled another case — a proposed $10,000 penalty for alleged abusive behavior on a 2009 flight from Miami — 10 years after the incident.
Other rulings and arguments made by the same judge, J.E. Sullivan, challenged the FAA’s interpretation of what it means for someone to “interfere” with a flight crew. As one of a handful of judges in the Transportation Department’s Office of Hearings, Sullivan provides interpretations that help shape how the FAA can enforce its rules, including its push to control unruly passengers.
In a case involving vaping on a plane, a passenger on a flight to Portland, Ore., set off a lavatory smoke alarm in 2019. The FAA charged the passenger with smoking — and also with violating a rule against interfering with a crew member performing their duties.
By putting on oxygen masks, making queries to gauge the threat and communicating with dispatchers over the incident, the flight crew was distracted from its regular safety preparations, an FAA lawyer argued. “We consider that an interference with their duties,” the lawyer said.
Sullivan countered that “there’s no interference,” adding, “the activity that they engaged in is the activity that they’re trained to engage in as part of their flight crew duties.”
It’s unclear whether mask-related cases working through the system could encounter similar issues. An internal FAA memo in February said persistent refusals to wear masks, requiring multiple instructions from a flight attendant, could be considered interference because of “the consequent distraction from safety-related duties.” Sullivan declined to be interviewed.
Regulators have given little attention to some onboard safety concerns raised years ago.
Congress passed a law in October 2018 giving the FAA administrator one year to issue an order requiring the installation of a “secondary cockpit barrier” on new planes as added protection against would-be intruders. Nearly three years later, the FAA is still working on it.
The legislation was named after Capt. Victor J. Saracini, who was killed on United Airlines Flight 175, which terrorists crashed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. The barriers are meant to be installed between the cabin and cockpit door to block passengers from rushing in when the door is opened for food or restroom breaks.
Beyond addressing hijacking fears, a 2020 advisory report to the FAA noted that the barriers also could stop disturbed and impaired passengers. The Biden administration put the barriers on its “priority list for 2021,” the FAA said.
On June 4, a passenger on a Delta Air Lines flight from Los Angeles to Nashville allegedly rushed up and started pounding on the cockpit door, forcing the plane to divert to Albuquerque. He was charged in U.S. District Court for New Mexico with interfering with a member of a flight crew.