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FAA says it has sent 250 cases of unruly passengers to FBI

The FAA can levy civil fines for misbehaving on planes, but it has to ask the FBI to file criminal charges in the most serious cases

People pass through Salt Lake City International Airport on January 11, 2023, in Salt Lake City.
People pass through Salt Lake City International Airport on January 11, 2023, in Salt Lake City.Rick Bowmer (AP)

Federal officials said Thursday they have referred more than 250 unruly airline passengers to the FBI for possible criminal prosecution since late 2021, including one as recently as last month, when a man tried to stab a flight attendant with a broken-off spoon.

The pace of the criminal referrals is slowing, however. The Federal Aviation Administration identified 17 cases it has sent to the FBI in the first three months of this year — mostly for incidents that happened last year but took time to investigate.

Airlines have reported fewer cases of unruly passengers since last April, when a federal judge struck down a requirement that people wear masks on planes and public transportation. Before that ruling, about two-thirds of all incidents on planes involved disputes over masks.

The FAA can levy civil fines but lacks authority to file criminal charges, so it asks the FBI to step in for the most serious cases.

“If you act out on a plane, you should just stay at home because we will come after you with serious consequences,” acting FAA Administrator Billy Nolen said in a statement. “We have zero tolerance for unruly behavior.”

The FBI did not say how often it acts on the FAA referrals. Assistant Director Luis Quesada said the bureau is “committed to investigating all incidents that fall within FBI jurisdiction aboard commercial flights,” but did not provide numbers.

The FAA announcement about came as lawmakers push legislation to create a new no-fly list for people convicted or fined for interfering with flight crews. A similar proposal backed by airline unions failed to gain ground last year in the face of opposition from conservatives and civil libertarians. The current FBI no-fly list is aimed at people suspected of terrorism ties.

The 17 cases that the FAA has referred this year include allegations of assaults against flight attendants and fellow passengers, attempts to open airplane exits during flights, and trying to break into the cockpit.

In the most recent case, passengers helped subdue a man who, prosecutors say, tried to open an emergency door and attempted to stab a flight attendant with a broken metal spoon during a flight from Los Angeles to Boston.

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