Death threats and drunken chaos in the air, $1 million in fines on the ground—FAA is having a record year

August 19, 2021, 2:10 PM UTC

In the largest wave of enforcement cases since the epidemic of unruly airline passengers began this year, U.S. regulators hit 34 people with civil charges that could total more than $531,000 in fines. 

The cases include passengers who made death threats and physically assaulted flight attendants and fellow flyers, the Federal Aviation Administration said Thursday in a news release. Many involved people who refused to wear mandatory face masks and were drinking alcohol illegally.

The cases pushed the proposed fines announced by the FAA this year to more than $1 million, roughly doubling the total in one announcement. 

A combination of resentment over federal mask mandates, fatigue over the Covid-19 pandemic and deepening political divisions have been factors in an unprecedented upsurge in misbehavior on airline flights in 2021, making jet cabins a proxy battleground in U.S. culture wars. 

Unruly passenger reports reached 3,889 for the year, including 682 deemed serious enough to warrant investigations, the FAA said. Such investigations number more than twice as many as any previous year and more than four months remain in 2021. 

The FAA in January declared it would no longer counsel offenders, saying it had a “zero tolerance” policy. More recently, the agency has sought help from local police to make more arrests and airports to stem the sale of booze to go.   

The largest proposed fine announced Thursday was $45,000 against a passenger on a May 24 JetBlue Airways Corp. flight from New York to Orlando, Florida. After refusing to get off the floor, he allegedly grabbed a flight attendant’s ankles and put his head up her skirt, the FAA said. He was placed in handcuffs and the plane diverted. 

There were multiple cases in which passengers allegedly threatened to kill people. One said, “I hope this plane [expletive] crashes” while being escorted off a plane and another yelled “imagine all of you in body bags,” the FAA charged.

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