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Criminal laws pertaining to unruly airplane passengers

Between 2007 and 2016, over 58,000 unruly passenger incidents were reported on International aircraft in-flight by the International Air Transport Association (IATA). In 2016, the rate was one incident for every 1.424 flights. The majority of reports were Level 1 incidents which are verbal in nature and can usually be dealt with to a successful conclusion by crew using de-escalation training. 12% of reports relate to Level 2 incidents which involve physical aggression to others or damage to the aircraft. Intoxication from alcohol or drugs was identified as a factor in 33% of reported cases. Unruly passenger incidents include violence against crew and other passengers, harassment, verbal abuse, smoking, failure to follow safety instructions and other forms of riotous behavior. Recently, a woman was removed from a Frontier Airlines flight when she attempted to fly with her “emotional support” squirrel and then refused to get off the plane when she was told rodents, including squirrels, are not allowed on Frontier flights. Frontier, like many airlines, has a policy on emotional support and trained service animals allowing cats, dogs and miniature horses. Federal regulations do permit them on airplanes but give the airlines permission to turn away unusual animals, like squirrels. The passenger was advised of the policy and asked to deplane, but when she declined, other passengers were forced to deplane so that authorities could remove the woman from the aircraft.

Although such acts are committed by a tiny minority of passengers, they have a disproportionate impact, create inconvenience, threaten the safety and security of other passengers and crew, and lead to significant operational disruption and costs for airlines. The aircraft cabin is a unique space and it is necessary to recognize the limitations that exist when you are flying in the air in a metal tub. As a result, these sorts of in-flight disturbances frequently result in law enforcement officers becoming involved.

One of the likely reasons for the increasing reports of disruptive passengers is the existence of a gap in international law and the fact that many countries don’t apply their laws to foreign aircraft arriving on their soil. Passenger behavior is subject to the law of the country the plane is registered in. The passengers responsible often walk away and victims of violence can’t always take practical legal actions. Yet, American Federal law bans passengers from interfering with flight crew. Also, certain acts which would be punishable if they occurred in the special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States, defined in 18 U.S.C. § 7, are made criminal under 49 U.S.C. § 46506(1) (formerly 49 U.S.C. App. § 1472(k)(1)) if they occur within the special aircraft jurisdiction of the United States.

The proscribed acts are assault (18 U.S.C. § 113), maiming (18 U.S.C. § 114), embezzlement and theft (18 U.S.C. § 661), receiving stolen property (18 U.S.C. § 662), murder (18 U.S.C. § 1111), manslaughter (18 U.S.C. §  1112), attempted murder or manslaughter (18 U.S.C. § 1113), sexual abuse offenses (18 U.S.C. §§  2241 to 2244), and robbery (18 U.S.C. § 2111).

The most common unruly incidents are assault on flight attendants and sexual assault on other passengers, which can be prosecuted with federal criminal charges such as:

  • 18 U.S. C. § 2241 – aggravated sexual abuse
  • 18 U.S. C. § 2244 – abusive sexual contact

But also with specific charges:

  • 49 U.S. C. § 46504 – Interference with flight crew members and attendants: An individual on an aircraft in the special aircraft jurisdiction of the United States who, by assaulting or intimidating a flight crew member or flight attendant of the aircraft, interferes with the performance of the duties of the member or attendant or lessens the ability of the member or attendant to perform those duties, or attempts or conspires to do such an act, shall be fined under title 18, imprisoned for not more than 20 years, or both. However, if a dangerous weapon is used in assaulting or intimidating the member or attendant, the individual shall be imprisoned for any term of years or for life.”
  • 49 U.S. C. § 46507 – False information and threats: “An individual shall be fined under title 18, imprisoned for not more than 5 years, or both, if the individual—

(1) knowing the information to be false, willfully and maliciously or with reckless disregard for the safety of human life, gives, or causes to be given, under circumstances in which the information reasonably may be believed, false information about an alleged attempt being made or to be made to do an act that would violate section 46502(a)4650446505, or 46506 of this title; or

(2)

(A) threatens to violate section 46502(a)4650446505, or 46506 of this title, or causes a threat to violate any of those sections to be made; and

(B) has the apparent determination and will to carry out the threat.”

  • 18 U.S. C. § 32 – Destruction of aircraft or aircraft facilities

However, Department of Justice figures show that just 11% of cases brought to the Federal Aviation Administration between 2001 and 2014 rose to the level of federal criminal prosecution. Moreover, even when there is a criminal prosecution, a plea agreement is often approved for the reduced misdemeanor charge of simple assault (18 U.S.C § 113). The airlines are sometimes reluctant to press criminal charges against the traveler because of fears that bad press could hurt the airline’s image, which can be surprising considering that many disruptive passengers can cost airlines big money, because it can cost between $10.000 and $200.000 to perform an unscheduled landing divert a flight or disembark an unruly passenger.

[If you or a loved one is involved in an unruly passenger case, do not hesitate to reach out to Galluzzo & Arnone; our team of former prosecutors and experienced criminal defense attorneys can help you with your case.]