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View of passengers in the cabin of a plane.

Skyrocketing Cases of Unruly Airline Passengers Mean Stricter Penalties

On July 6, American Airlines flight 1774 departed from Dallas-Fort Worth, heading for Charlotte, North Carolina. It appeared to be a normal flight. But when a passenger attempted to open the airplane’s forward boarding door, flight attendants acted quickly to try and calm her. The passenger “physically assaulted, bit and caused injury to a flight attendant,” American Airlines confirmed to USA Today.

Attendants tried to use flex cuffs and duct tape to restrain the passenger. Photos taken from a TikTok video show the woman in first class with duct tape over her mouth and chest. When the plane landed at Charlotte’s Douglas International Airport, she was taken to a local hospital by first responders.

According to passenger witnesses to The Washington Post, the incident began approximately an hour into the two-hour flight. The passenger in question began attempting to open the airplane’s door. “She was saying, ‘I need to get off this plane,’ and she went up to the exits and started banging on the doors, saying, ‘You need to let me off this plane!'” said, one witness. 

“She started getting more and more agitated and very loud, and the man sitting next to her, along with the flight attendants, kindly tried to console her and calm her, but nothing worked,” said passenger Elizabeth LaClair, who was sitting in front of the woman and described her as odd.   

Several media reports said that some other passengers felt that the flight crew handled the situation poorly. Various outlets reached out to American Airlines to ask which health and safety policy would permit the use of duct tape to restrain unruly passengers. Still, as of press time, the airline has not provided an answer. 

Penalties for Disruptive Airline Passengers

On January 12, Administrator Steve Dickson of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) signed a stricter law enforcement policy regarding unruly passengers. Mr. Dickson’s reasoning was based on the increasing number of flights being disrupted by violent or threatening behavior. “Flying is the safest mode of transportation and I signed this order to keep it that way,” he said in a press release about the new policy. 

In the past, the FAA has addressed unruly passengers using warnings and counseling, saving civil penalties for the most serious incidents. The new policy means the end of warnings and counseling. Instead, the FAA will directly pursue legal action against any passenger who threatens, assaults, interferes with, or intimidates airline crew members or other passengers. 

Violators will face stiffer penalties, including imprisonment and fines up to $35,000. Reports are filed to the FAA and do not include any security violations.

From January 1 through July 20, the FAA received 3,509 reports of unruly behavior by passengers. Over 2,600 of those were tied to refusal to comply with the federal face mask mandate. The stricter policy may have stemmed from these refusals as well as the violent breach of the U.S. Capitol on January 6. Reports from last year numbered just 183 incidents.

Keeping everyone safe from unruly passengers while in flight is of paramount concern. It is important to remember that you have rights when aboard, even in the air. The Department of Transportation (DOT) reminds travelers that they must “listen to the crew members and do what they say,” but complaints can be filed with the airlines or the DOT. 

In this incident, the unruly passenger failed to follow instructions provided by the flight crew. Other witness claims point to possible additional factors at play, such as mental health problems. The incident is currently under investigation by the FAA.