The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on Thursday said it referred 17 unruly passengers to the FBI for criminal investigation this year, taking the total of such referrals for violent and threatening incidents onboard planes to more than 250 since late 2021.
Last month, a bipartisan group of lawmakers made a new push for legislation to bar passengers fined or convicted of serious physical violence from commercial flights, arguing the enhanced penalty is a strong deterrent needed to improve aviation worker and passenger safety.
After a spike in incidents, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland in 2021 directed federal prosecutors to prioritize investigations of airline passengers committing assaults and other crimes aboard aircraft.
The FAA last year said its zero-tolerance policy for addressing unruly passengers would become permanent even after the end of a mask mandate onboard airplanes that was tied to most of the earlier reported incidents.
Acting FAA Administrator Billy Nolen said on Thursday the agency has “zero tolerance for unruly behavior.”
FBI Assistant Director Luis Quesada said the agency “will continue to work with our FAA partners to ensure the safety of all passengers and to combat violence aboard commercial flights.”
The new FAA referrals include a number of assaults on airplanes to passengers and flight attendants, as well as threats and attempts to enter the flight deck or open an airplane door.
Reported unruly passenger incidents rose by almost 500% in 2021 to 5,981, which included 4,290 mask-related incidents. The FAA proposed $5 million in fines in 2021 and $8.4 million last year.
The total number of incidents reported onboard has fallen sharply and returned to pre-pandemic levels after the April 2022 end of the mask mandate. Last year, incidents fell 60% to 2,456 and they are now down 80% over 2021 highs.
The FAA opened investigations into 831 unruly passenger incidents in 2022, up from 146 in 2019, but down from 1,099 in 2021.
Last month, a man was arrested after prosecutors said he tried to open an emergency exit door on a Boston-bound United Airlines (UAL.O) flight and attempted to stab a flight attendant in the neck with a broken spoon.