FAA plans to enforce stricter penalties including hefty fines, jail time for unruly passengers

Whether it's the Capitol chaos last week, or passenger compliance when it comes to masks, both continue to affect the airline industry.

The Federal Aviation Administration pulled out all stops on Wednesday, with Administrator Steve Dickson signing an order that adds stricter enforcement and penalties for unruly passengers.

"Flying is the safest mode of transportation and I signed this order to keep it that way," said Dickson.

According to the directive, anyone who interferes, physically assaults or threatens crew members or anyone else in the aircraft could face stiff penalties, including imprisonment or fines of up to $35,000.

"The issue of compliance has become a bigger issue," said Paul Hartshorn, Jr. an American Airlines flight attendant based in Philadelphia.

Passenger disruption reports have skyrocketed, he said when we interviewed him late last week for a disruption onboard an Alaska Airlines flight.

Alaska Airlines says a number of passengers on flight 1085 from Washington Dulles to Seattle last Thursday night refused to wear masks and harassed crew members. On Friday, the company announced that 14 passengers involved in the unacceptable behavior have been banned from future travel with the airline.

"While we are trained for the in-flight disruptions, we are not trained for the chanting, the yelling, the large amounts of non-compliance we're seeing," said Hartshorn, Jr. 

From a law enforcement perspective, the FAA said they do not have authority to arrest anybody, but that they will work closely with federal and national law enforcement agencies.

"The FAA's focus is really on civil penalties, civil dollar amount penalties, so they're going to be working with the U.S. attorney's office whenever the need to prosecute comes up," said aviation attorney Jimmy Anderson of the Seattle-based law firm, Krutch Lindell Bingham Jones, PS.

According to Anderson, the FAA's role has changed, especially in light of recent events.

"In the past, the FAA had moved away from straight enforcement and instead moved into a counseling role for some of these instances. This order by the FAA moves it right back into strict enforcement by the FAA, and the Administrator has said, it's a direct result of what happened on the 6th," said Anderson. 

The move by the FAA comes just a few days after the CDC issued guidance that all international travelers coming into the U.S. need to have a negative COVID-19 test within three days of their flight. 

"It's tough to step out as one airline to create these types of changes. It's a lot easier when it's done on an industry-wide basis," said Anderson.

The FAA's order goes into effect immediately, and will last until March 30th. 

A flight attendant's union applauds the recent move.

"First strike and you're out," said AFA International President Sara Nelson in a statement to Q13 News. "We applaud FAA Administrator Dickson for taking this clear stand for our safety and security. This will help serve as a deterrent to unruly passengers who had been bucking the rules of aviation safety. We continue to work with airlines, the FAA, the TSA and law enforcement to keep our skies safe."