Attorney General Merrick Garland instructed federal prosecutors Wednesday to prioritize cases involving violence on flights.
An internal memo, released in the thick of Thanksgiving holiday travel, stressed that such disruptive behavior endangers the safety of flight crews and attendants, as well as passengers, and tells U.S. attorneys to coordinate with federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement agencies within the next 20 days for potential prosecution.
"Passengers who assault, intimidate or threaten violence against flight crews and flight attendants do more than harm those employees; they prevent the performance of critical duties that help ensure safe air travel," Garland said. "The Department of Justice is committed to using its resources to do its part to prevent violence, intimidation, threats of violence and other criminal behavior that endangers the safety of passengers, flight crews and flight attendants on commercial aircraft."
Airline crews have reported more than 5,300 incidents of unruly behavior on commercial flights in 2021, over 72% of which have to do with masks, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. Wearing a mask or face covering in airports and on planes, meant to stop the spread of COVID-19, is required under federal rules.
The FAA says more than 1,000 investigations into the complaints have been opened so far this year, an uptick compared to 2016-20 when the agency averaged 136 cases a year, according to the Associated Press.
The FAA has a no-tolerance policy and announced 10 unruly airline passengers were levied fines totaling more than $200,000, CNN reported this month.
"The unacceptable disruptive behavior that we're seeing is a serious safety threat to flights, and we're committed to our partnership with the DOJ to combat it," said FAA Administrator Steve Dickson.
Garland's memo said the FAA and DOJ have created an information-sharing protocol, which has already resulted in the referral of dozens of incidents by the FAA to the FBI for investigation.
U.S. air travel this Thanksgiving holiday is expected to be the busiest since the pandemic began.
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