Cantwell, Durbin Call on DOJ, FAA to Toughen Actions Against Dangerous Airline Passengers

Zero-tolerance policy and FAA fines have not been enough to deter dangerous criminal activity as physical assaults continue

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation and Richard Durbin (D-IL), Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee today sent separate letters to Attorney General Merrick Garland and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Administrator Steve Dickson regarding increased incidents involving unruly airline passengers.  The senators called on the agencies to coordinate efforts to ensure that those airline passengers who commit criminal acts are prosecuted. 

“Civil penalties alone are failing to deter criminal activity by airline passengers,” Sens. Cantwell and Durbin wrote to FAA Administrator Steve Dickson. “Robust and public efforts to prosecute those who endanger passengers and crewmembers are necessary to deter interference with safe air travel. The FAA plays a critical role in investigating and referring criminal incidents to federal law enforcement authorities.”

As of September 14, 2021, there have been 4,284 reports of unruly passenger incidents this year—3,123 of which were mask-related.  Additionally, the FAA has initiated 755 investigations into unruly passengers, which is more than double the investigations for 2019 and 2020 combined.  The FAA has initiated enforcement actions in 154 cases, levying more than one million dollars in fines.

“As you know, DOJ has ample authority to prosecute those who commit crimes while onboard an aircraft,” the senators wrote to Attorney General Merrick Garland. “It is critical that DOJ direct federal law enforcement agents and prosecutors to use these authorities to fully investigate reported incidents on aircraft, and, when supported by the evidence, prosecute those who are criminally responsible.”

According to a recent survey of flight attendants, over 85% of respondents had dealt with unruly passengers in the first half of 2021.

Cantwell and Durbin also asked for a briefing from DOJ and FAA to inform Congressional oversight of the issue no later than October 11, 2021.

A copy of today’s letter to DOJ is available here.

A copy of today’s letter to FAA is available here.