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US Attorney General Merrick Garland Wednesday led federal prosecutors across the country to prioritize the prosecution of air passengers committing assault and other crimes on board.
The directive came the very day that millions of Americans flew into the skies for a trip on Thanksgiving Day – and amid record levels of criminal and unruly behavior by passengers on planes.
The Federal Aviation Administration reports that on November 23 there were 5,338 reports of unruly passengers sent to the agency. 3,856 other reported mask-related incidents in which passengers caused problems with COVID-19 mask rules.
Federal law prohibits interfering with a flight crew. This includes assaulting, intimidating or threatening them on board. Garland said in his memo that problematic passengers do more than physically attack employees.
“They prevent the execution of critical tasks that help ensure the safety of air travel,” he said. Likewise, when passengers commit acts of violence against other cramped passengers on a commercial aircraft, the behavior endangers everyone on board.
American Airlines flight attendant Paul Hartshorn, Jr., spokesperson for the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, told NPR earlier this month that flight crews were mentally and physically exhausted after the last two years.
“We had flight attendants pushed, hit, pushed to the ground and hit their heads on the armrest on the way down. Really, very serious injuries that we’re dealing with here.”
On a recent flight, he says a passenger repeatedly punched a flight attendant in the face, breaking her nose and other facial bones. This passenger was arrested and charged by federal authorities as the FAA is now increasingly referring these cases to the FBI and the Department of Justice for prosecution.
Garland’s memo said dozens of incidents had been forwarded by the FAA to the FBI for investigation, all as part of an “information-sharing protocol” between the two agencies created to suppress the phenomenon.