Consequences for unruly airline passengers may not be steep

The rapid growth in the number of unruly, disruptive or downright violent passengers aboard planes was — and still is…

The rapid growth in the number of unruly, disruptive or downright violent passengers aboard planes was — and still is — a hot topic in the airline business.

And the number of incidents was — and still is — alarming. Cellphone videos taken by other passengers show onboard fights, flight attendants being assaulted, other passengers being punched, offenders often duct taped to their seats and law enforcement escorting passengers off planes. Many incidents result in flights being diverted.

In 2021, the number of these incidents were north of 6,000. In 2022, while the numbers dropped, they are still more than 10 times higher than in decades past. In 1995, there were 146 reports of unruly airline passengers. So far in 2022, the Federal Aviation Administration has received 1,944 reports.

It’s against federal law to “assault, threaten, intimidate, or interfere with a crewmember in the performance of the crewmember’s duties aboard an aircraft being operated,” according to federal regulations.

Historically, the FAA has closed these cases with legal enforcement action; civil penalties; administrative action, which are warning notices; compliance action, which is counseling, or no action if there is insufficient evidence of a regulatory violation or violation of federal law. However, under the FAA’s current zero-tolerance policy toward unruly passengers, implemented in 2021, the agency hasn’t issued warning notices or counseling orders.

As part of its most recent reauthorization in 2018, the FAA can propose up to $37,000 per violation for unruly passenger cases. Previously, the maximum civil penalty per violation was $25,000. One incident can result in multiple violations.

To date in 2022, the Federal Aviation Administration received nearly 2,000 reports of unruly passengers. CBS News

Of those reports, 673 were investigated by authorities and 460 enforcement action cases were initiated. But despite obvious violations of the law by passengers, both official and industry sources told CBS News very few passengers have actually been arrested, and even fewer have been fined or imprisoned.

The key word here is “propose.” In almost every single case, sources said, the total amount of the proposed FAA fines are never paid in full, and in many cases there are no fines paid at all.

There are exceptions, of course.

A New York woman was sentenced to four months in prison after her use of racial slurs sparked an argument during a flight to Los Angeles, prompting the pilot to divert the plane to Phoenix.

Kelly Pichardo, 32, of the Bronx, New York, was sentenced to four months in prison and 36 months of supervised release after she pled guilty to interference with flight crew members. She was ordered to pay $9,123 in restitution to American Airlines.

In another case, Vyvianna M. Quinonez, 29, of Sacramento, will have to pay nearly $26,000 in restitution and a $7,500 fine for an onboard attack, during which she punched a Southwest Airlines flight attendant, bloodying her face and chipping three of her teeth. Quinonez was sentenced to 15 months in federal prison.

And in April, the FAA proposed its largest fine to date: $81,950 from a woman passenger who had to be duct-taped to her seat on an American Airlines flight to Charlotte in July 2021. Her case is still pending.

In 2021 and 2022, a number of airlines, including United and Delta, announced that unruly passengers would be banned from their flights because of their behavior. The announcements inferred the bans would be for life.

But by April, once the federal mask mandate was lifted, those carriers were quietly inviting those passengers back to the friendly skies.

Delta said in April it would be restoring flight privileges for customers who demonstrated “an understanding of their expected behavior when flying with us.” This new forgiveness policy is being applied to those passengers who were banned for “mask non-compliance.” The Delta announcement came a day after United made a similar one. American and Alaska Airlines both followed suit.

So much for the permanent no-fly list, although passengers who had behaved violently are still on those lists from the airlines — which are different from the federal terrorism watch no-fly list.

And how many people are still on those lists and do airlines share the names among them? No one knows.

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