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Justice Department to Prioritize Prosecution of Air Rage Incidents

November 24, 2021 by Dan McCue
Travelers queue up at the south security checkpoint as traffic increases with the approach of the Thanksgiving Day holiday Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2021, at Denver International Airport in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

WASHINGTON — With more people expected to travel by air this week than at any time since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, Attorney General Merrick Garland had a message Wednesday for anyone tempted to lose their cool — act up and you will be prosecuted.

In a memorandum distributed to U.S. attorneys across the nation, Garland directed that they prioritize prosecution of federal crimes occurring on commercial aircraft that endanger the safety of passengers, flight crews and flight attendants.

Federal law prohibits assaults, intimidation and threats of violence that interfere with flight crews and flight attendants, as well as multiple other criminal acts that occur during flight. 

“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 a written statement. 

“Similarly, when passengers commit violent acts against other passengers in the close confines of a commercial aircraft, the conduct endangers everyone aboard,” he added.

The memo also highlights an information-sharing protocol between the Federal Aviation Administration and the Justice Department, which helps ensure the department is notified about criminal conduct occurring on commercial aircraft. 

The protocol, which has been in place since mid-summer, has already resulted in the referral of dozens of incidents by the FAA to the FBI for investigation, the Justice Department said, though it did not specify how many, if any, of these occurred this past week.

The FAA said the cases referred to the FBI are among 227 this year in which it has begun enforcement action that could lead to civil penalties against passengers.

Airlines have reported more than 5,000 incidents involving unruly passengers this year, with more than 3,600 of those involving people who refused to wear face masks as required by federal regulation.

The Association of Flight Attendants is pushing for the creation of a new no-fly list for people who assault crew members or other passengers. Someone banned on one airline could potentially be banned on all.

“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.

The Transportation Security Administration has said it expects to screen about 20 million air passengers during the Thanksgiving travel period, the most since 2019 when nearly 26 million Americans were on the move at that time. 

On Tuesday, the TSA screened about 2.21 million U.S. air passengers, the sixth consecutive day with checkpoint volume topping 2 million.

Dan can be reached at [email protected] and at https://twitter.com/DanMcCue

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