FAA proposes $58K in fines in civil cases against unruly flyers

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Airplane passengers [Credit: Matej Kastelic/Shutterstock.com]
A crowded flight, pre-Covid. But as the pandemic has worn on, the FAA has invoked a zero-tolerance policy against unruly-passenger incidents. Photo Credit: Matej Kastelic/Shutterstock.com

The FAA said Wednesday that it has brought three new civil cases against airline passengers for refusing to wear masks. 

The announcement is part of a campaign by the agency to push back against what it says has been a surge in unruly passenger behavior during the pandemic. The same surge led FAA administrator Steve Dickson to declare in January that the agency would enforce a zero-tolerance policy toward passengers who cause disturbances or fail to obey flight crew instructions.

That policy will remain in place until the federal mask mandate expires. Previously, the agency had often addressed unruly-passenger incidents by starting with warnings and counseling.

Among the cases the FAA announced Wednesday is a recommend fine of $32,750 fine for a passenger on a February JetBlue flight from the Dominican Republic to New York. The passenger, the FAA alleged, threw food and an alcohol bottle in the air; shouted obscenities; grabbed a flight attendant's arm; and struck the arm of another flight attendant, all after not complying with instructions to wear a face mask.

The FAA also recommended a $16,500 fine against a passenger who was slated to fly Southwest from Chicago to Sacramento on Jan. 26. The passenger was thrown off the flight for refusing to wear a mask, and as he exited the aircraft called two flight attendants "pathetic," and hit one of them with his bags, the agency alleges.

In the third case, involving a Jan. 30 Alaska Airlines flight from Bozeman, Mont. to Seattle, the FAA recommended a fine of $9,000 be assessed on a passenger who allegedly refused to wear a mask, which caused the plane's captain to return from the runway to the gate so that the passenger could be removed from the aircraft.

The FAA says it has received more than 1,300 unruly-passenger reports from airlines since February, of which it has thus far identified possible violations in approximately 260 cases.

An agency spokesman was not able to say how that report figure compares to previous years. The agency hasn't previously kept data on airline unruly passenger reports, he explained, because the number remained fairly constant year-over-year. However, a few months ago the agency noticed "a significant increase" in unruly passenger reports.

In an interview with NBC News this week, Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA union, said that flight attendants have been subject to various physical assaults, and in one case, to a passenger urinating.

"The physical and verbal abuse that flight attendants have been taking has been way off the charts," she said.

But on a recent episode of the FAA's Up in the Air podcast, Nelson also said that since Dickson implemented the zero-tolerance policy, the incident count has stayed about the same, even as the number of people flying has increased substantially.

Those "very clear instructions from the administrator were applauded by flight attendants all across the industry," Nelson said. "It made it easier for us to do our jobs."

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