More than 3,500 reports of unruly passengers on flights have been logged this year by the Federal Aviation Administration, far exceeding anything the agency has seen in the past. Of those, 581 were deemed serious enough to prompt a formal investigation, the FAA said.
But the agency -- which has a primary mission of ensuring air safety, not security -- has no authority to bring criminal charges. Since December it has announced 46 civil penalty cases.
The government is straining to keep up.
On Jan. 23, a passenger on an Alaska Airlines flight repeatedly dialed 911 before it even left the gate in Seattle. He claimed the plane was being hijacked. Then he called the FBI to say there was a bomb.
Police stormed the plane and evacuated everyone before discovering it was a hoax. The false report delayed the flight for hours, forced the rescreening of baggage and may have broken a federal law that could land the passenger in prison for five years.
But, so far, no charges have been filed.
The case is being handled by the King County prosecuting attorney's office, which declined to bring felony threat charges because there was no actual hijacking or bomb, spokesman Casey McNerthney said. Prosecutors are considering whether to charge the man with false reporting, but it's only a misdemeanor under state law.
Federal law makes it a serious crime to falsely report a hijacking. But the U.S. attorney's office in Seattle hasn't brought charges and it doesn't appear the case was referred to it.
For now, the 32-year-old Oregon man faces a possible fine of $10,500 from the FAA. Such fines are subject to challenge and negotiation.
A Bloomberg News review of FAA cases, court records and news reports found several instances of serious cases in which passengers allegedly struck flight crew members or engaged in other criminal acts but no charges were filed.
"If it's a criminal activity, it ought to have criminal prosecution," Southwest Airlines Chief Executive Officer Gary Kelly said on a conference call Thursday. "There are extreme cases out there that are occurring and I think that we will be for the full enforcement and letter of the law, whatever is available. We would be in support of that."
FAA Administrator Steve Dickson ordered stricter enforcement after numerous cases of fights and other incidents on planes erupted around the time of the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol.
Since then, many incidents have become intertwined with the divisive politics over the covid-19 pandemic. More than 2,600 unruly passenger reports, or 74% of the total in 2021, have involved the refusal to wear mandatory face masks, according to the agency.
"The system was not designed to deal with air rage incidents because they were always few and far between," said Jeffrey Price, an airport security consultant and professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver.
A group of airline associations and industry unions last month urged Attorney General Merrick Garland to "send a strong and consistent message" by more aggressively bringing criminal cases in the worst cases.
"Where criminal charges apply, the federal government should prosecute offenders to the fullest extent," Julie Hedrick, president of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants union at American Airlines Group Inc. said in an emailed statement.
In a statement, the Justice Department said prosecutors consider a range of factors before bringing charges, including the severity of the offense and whether lives were endangered, the impacts on victims and the mental health status of the person who committed the act.
"Interference with flight crew members is a serious crime that deserves the attention of federal law enforcement," the department said in the statement.
Federal charges were filed in 16 cases in the year ending Oct. 1, 2020, and 20 in the year before.