FAA Appeals To U.S. Airports To Help Stop Unruly Passengers

masked passenger in seat
Credit: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

WASHINGTON—The administrator of the FAA penned a letter to leaders of 1,000 U.S. commercial airports requesting their help in curbing violent and disruptive incidents by passengers aboard aircraft.

Reported incidents of unruly passengers in flight have skyrocketed along with the rebound in air travel demand in 2021, leading the FAA to adopt a “zero tolerance” enforcement policy last winter. 

Airlines have reported upwards of 3,715 incidents involving abusive passengers since the beginning of 2021, with about 75% of them relating to the use of face masks, according to the FAA. The agency said it has initiated over 600 investigations so far this year, nearly double the number for the previous two years combined. Fines have been proposed so far in nearly 100 cases. The FAA said many of the incidents were sparked by the national mask mandate in effect in airports and onboard aircraft since January.

In his letter to airport leaders, FAA Administrator Steve Dickson said that the FAA’s investigation into the matter revealed how alcohol often contributes to bad behavior by travelers. While federal regulations restrict the consumption of alcohol aboard a commercial aircraft that was not provided by the airline, Dickson said that many passengers have been bringing their own onto flights or are becoming inebriated before boarding. 

Airlines restricted alcohol sales during the pandemic, although most of those policies have been partially or completely rolled back along with the rebound in leisure travel this spring and summer. 

Dickson said that airports can help combat instances of unruly and intoxicated passengers by cracking down on concessionaires who sell “to-go” alcohol, which some passengers have been bringing on to flights. Airports can bring awareness to the prohibition on passengers bringing alcohol onboard flights through signage, public service announcement and concessionaire education, he added.

Dickson also lamented that many passengers accused of causing onboard disturbances have been released by local police without criminal charges. The FAA lacks the authority to prosecute criminal cases.

“When this occurs, we miss a key opportunity to hold unruly passengers accountable for their unacceptable and dangerous behavior,” Dickson said.

The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA), whose members have had to contend with the surge in abusive passenger incidents, has also been outspoken about the need for tougher policies against passengers who assault crewmembers and other travelers.

A survey of more than 5,000 AFA members revealed that more than 85% of all respondents had dealt with unruly passengers at least once during the first half of 2021, with over 58% reporting five or more incidents and 17% reporting experiencing a physical incident.

The survey also showed that existing measures in place to protect flight attendants from abusive passengers are falling short. Some 71% of respondents who filed incident reports with airline management received no follow-up, and more than half did not observe efforts by their employers to address the rise in unruly passengers.

Speaking to reporters following publication of the survey results, AFA president Sara Nelson called on the FAA and the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) to do more to protect passengers and crew from abusive passengers.

“This survey confirms what we all know; the vitriol, verbal and physical abuse from a small group of passengers is completely out of control and is putting other passengers and flight crew at risk,” Nelson said. “It is time to make the FAA ‘zero tolerance’ policy permanent, and for the DOJ to utilize existing statute to conduct criminal prosecution ... in the event of incidents.”



Ben Goldstein

Based in Washington, Ben covers Congress, regulatory agencies, the Departments of Justice and Transportation and lobby groups.