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Attorney General Merrick Garland on Wednesday directed U.S. attorneys to prioritize the prosecution of federal crimes on commercial aircraft as the holiday travel season kicks off.
In a memo, Garland urged federal prosecutors to directly communicate with law enforcement about incidents on commercial flights that violate federal laws, and to encourage reporting crimes in a “complete and timely” way.
Garland’s directive comes amid an uptick in reports of criminal behavior on flights. The Federal Aviation Administration on Tuesday said it has received approximately 5,338 reports of unruly passenger behavior since the start of the year.
Of those reports, 3,856 were mask-related. The Transportation Security Administration doubled fines for passengers who refuse to comply with the federal mask mandate for air travel in September. However, flight attendants enforcing the mandate onboard commercial flights were still worried about physical attacks from travelers.
In October, President Joe Biden instructed the Justice Department to “deal” with the rising number of violent incidents reported onboard commercial flights.
Garland said Wednesday, the travel-heavy day before Thanksgiving, that he is concerned about the rise in criminal behavior that threatens the safety of flight attendants, flight crews and passengers.
“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,” the attorney general said in a statement. “Similarly, when passengers commit violent acts against other passengers in the close confines of a commercial aircraft, the conduct endangers everyone aboard.”
In Wednesday’s memo, Garland also discussed the establishment of an information-sharing protocol between the Federal Aviation Administration and the Justice Department. It has already resulted in the referral of dozens of incidents to the FBI for investigation, he noted.
Over 1,012 investigations and 266 enforcement cases have been initiated since the start of this year, according to FAA data from Tuesday.
“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,” Garland said in the memo.
On Monday, the FAA proposed $161,823 in civil penalties against eight passengers for alleged alcohol-related unruly behavior. The agency has received about 300 reports of passenger disturbances due to alcohol and intoxication since the beginning of this year, according to a press release from the agency.
One of the passengers is accused of drinking their own alcohol during the flight, the press release said. After a flight attendant told them it was prohibited, the passenger allegedly sexually assaulted them.
Earlier this month, U.S. prosecutors in Colorado charged a 20-year-old California man with assaulting a flight attendant on an Oct. 27 American Airlines flight bound for California that forced the plane to land, Reuters reported.
American Airlines CEO Doug Parker called the incident “one of the worst displays of unruly behavior we’ve ever witnessed.”
Paul Hartshorn, spokesman for the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, which represents American Airlines’ more than 20,000 cabin crew members, said incidents with unruly passengers were “out of control.”
“It’s really coming to the point where we have to defend ourselves,” Hartshorn told CNBC in June.