The number of incidents involving unruly passengers has surged this year, according to regulators. Flight attendants said they have been harassed, threatened and, in some cases, physically attacked.
The FAA has pledged to take a more aggressive approach to pursuing punishments, including hefty fines, for passengers who flout safety rules. But the agency said it has been inundated with reports of out-of-control passengers, and needs help from airports and law enforcement.
"While the FAA has levied civil fines against unruly passengers, it has no authority to prosecute criminal cases," FAA Administrator Steve Dickson wrote to airport officials around the U.S. in a letter released Thursday. Law-enforcement officers are frequently asked to meet planes at their gates following incidents, but often release passengers without charges, Mr. Dickson wrote.
"When this occurs, we miss a key opportunity to hold unruly passengers accountable for their unacceptable and dangerous behavior," he said.
The FAA said it has received 3,715 reports of unruly passengers since the start of the year. The agency has initiated 628 investigations and 99 enforcement actions. In 2019, the FAA initiated fewer than 150 investigations into passenger behavior. Dozens of Transportation Security Administration screening officers have also been assaulted since the start of the pandemic, that agency has said.
Airlines and aviation labor unions have written to the Justice Department asking the agency to pursue criminal charges against violent passengers.
In some cases, police have taken action. A Miami-bound passenger on a July 31 Frontier Airlines flight was arrested after he allegedly groped two flight attendants' breasts and punched another in the face, according to the Miami-Dade Police Department's report. The passenger, who had been drinking and didn't respond to efforts by the crew to calm him, was taped to the seat and tied with seat-belt extender for the remainder of the flight, according to the police report. He was charged with three counts of misdemeanor battery, according to the report.
Nearly three-quarters of the incidents cataloged this year by the FAA involve passengers refusing to comply with federal rules requiring them to wear masks on planes and in airports. However, the reasons for the other problems are less clear-cut.
Many people are resuming travel after a period of prolonged isolation and have struggled with new anxieties, airline and union officials have said. Some people traveling this summer weren't regular fliers even before the pandemic, airline executives say. Flight delays and cancellations this summer have contributed to passenger frustrations, flight attendants have said.
One common factor, the FAA and flight attendants have said, is alcohol.
FAA regulations already prohibit passengers, while on flights, from consuming alcohol that isn't served by airlines. Mr. Dickson said the FAA has received reports that airport bars and restaurants have allowed passengers to take alcoholic beverages to go.
As a result, "passengers believe they can carry that alcohol onto their flights or they become inebriated during the boarding process," Mr. Dickson wrote. He asked airports to help curb that behavior by working with vendors and making public-service announcements about the rules.
Southwest Airlines Co. and American Airlines Group Inc. in May said they would delay resuming in-flight sales of alcohol in an effort to keep disruptive behavior to a minimum. The union representing Southwest flight attendants said that month that the number of incidents of passenger misconduct had become intolerable, citing a flight attendant who had two teeth knocked out in an assault.