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Push for stronger enforcement of unruly passengers following 2021's record numbers

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Posted at 5:00 AM, Dec 30, 2021

WASHINGTON — It has been a difficult week for the airline industry, as thousands of flights have been canceled in many cases due to staffing issues caused by COVID-19 cases.

That, of course, can lead to frustrated travelers, who have been more than abundant in 2021.

The latest numbers from the FAA show at least 5,779 reports of unruly passengers in 2021, and 4,156 are related to masks. Those numbers do not reflect any complaints filed during the Christmas and New Year's Day holidays.

The FAA does not have the authority to file criminal charges. However, they do have the ability to issue fines and take away privileges, like TSA PreCheck.

One of the most significant fines this year involved a man who brought and consumed alcohol on board a flight to San Diego. When the flight attendant asked him to stop, he proceeded to allegedly sexually assault the flight attendant and smoke cannabis in the bathroom. That passenger was fined $40,000.


But one question facing Congress and regulators is whether any additional resources or laws need to be passed to make 2022 a better year in the sky. After all, this past year, the FAA had a zero-tolerance policy, and yet the numbers were still at record levels.

"Flight attendants and aviation workers are saying, 'Please, make it stop,'" Sara Nelson, the international president of the Association of Flight Attendants, said earlier this month during a Dec. 15 testimony in a United States Senate committee hearing.

Nelson said one recent change flight attendants are pleased with is that the FAA and the Justice Department are beginning to work together in a more coordinated way to increase prosecutions.

Attorney General Merrick Garland recently wrote a memo "directing United States Attorneys to prioritize the prosecution of federal crimes occurring on commercial aircraft."

But Nelson says Congress should take even more steps. Nelson has told lawmakers that "to-go" alcohol inside airports needs to be banned. Additionally, more police need to be available inside terminals.

Nelson says that officials can often spot a potential problematic passenger at the gate — before they even board the plane.

"We do need more enforcement in the airports because we are not seeing that happen," Nelson said during the hearing. "We need to ban to go alcohol. This is a major issue."