How airlines, federal officials have coped with a rise in ‘egregious’ passenger behavior

Despite new zero-tolerance policy, crew members across the country reporting more incidents than ever

By: - December 24, 2021 5:00 am

People navigate through Miami International Airport amid coronavirus fears on March 15, 2020. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Millions of Americans are traveling for the holidays at the end of a year that has shattered records for the number of unruly and dangerous passenger incidents investigated by federal aviation officials.

As of Dec. 14, there have been 1,030 such incidents investigated by the Federal Aviation Administration this year, up from 183 investigations in 2020, according to data available on the FAA’s website.

Crew members on flights to and from Colorado have dealt with their share of incidents, from passengers refusing to wear masks to the physical assault of flight attendants. In January, President Joe Biden announced a federal mask mandate for passengers using public transportation and has since extended the mandate through March. 

Landon Perry Grier, of Cañon City, was charged with interfering with a flight crew on a flight from Seattle to Denver in March. Grier refused to put on a mask after being asked “eight to ten times,” and after he ignored the flight attendant, he struck her arm, according to a statement from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Colorado. Later, passengers notified a different flight attendant that Grier was urinating in his seat.


Grier said he was returning from Alaska, where he had been working in a gold mine, and that prior to leaving Alaska, he had one beer, and then had “three to four beers and a ‘couple of shots’” prior to boarding the plane in Seattle, according to an FBI affidavit. He told an FBI airport liaison agent that he took an over-the-counter pain reliever because he had body aches from working.

Grier was found guilty of assault by striking and was sentenced to three years of probation, according to court documents filed last month.

Alaska Airlines has seen a 25% increase in disruptive behavior this year compared to 2020, according to Cailee Olson, the media relations manager for Alaska Airlines.

The behavior

Last month, Brain Hsu, of California, was charged with interference with flight crew and assault stemming from an October incident on a flight bound to California from New York, which was diverted to Denver.

Denver police officers, who spoke to the flight crew, heard that Hsu assaulted a female flight attendant and saw the flight attendant bleeding “from or around her nose,” according to a criminal complaint. She was taken to a hospital by ambulance. 

Hsu told authorities that he was flying home from New York after receiving brain surgery in Rhode Island. 

The FAA proposed a $15,000 fine for a passenger flying to Denver in December 2020 who allegedly drank alcohol that the airline did not serve to him in front of flight attendants who were telling him it was against the law to drink alcohol he brought on the plane. 

The FAA “proposes” fines because passengers have the right to due process, Ian Gregor, public affairs specialist for the FAA, wrote in an email. There are several options for a passenger who faces a civil penalty for unruly behavior. 

The security line at Denver International Airport in Oct. 2021 (Julia Fennell/Colorado Newsline)

The FAA recommended a $9,000 fine against a passenger on a separate Alaska Airlines flight in February. The passenger, who was flying from Denver to Seattle, allegedly interfered with crew members after he refused to wear a mask, hid a flight attendant’s jacket under his seat and punched a window and tray table, according to an FAA statement. 

This passenger was banned from flying Alaska and Horizon immediately after the incident and will remain on the list indefinitely, Olson wrote in an email. The flight attendant has since returned to work.

Passengers have a month to respond after receiving an enforcement letter from the FAA.

The FAA proposed a $9,000 fine against a passenger on a January flight from Denver to Arizona who interfered with crew members after he refused to comply with the mask mandate.

The FAA recommended over $20,000 in fines for an American Airlines passenger who allegedly verbally abused flight attendants after she realized her seat would not recline, struck a flight attendant and refused to comply with the mask policy during her flight to Aspen in March, according to a statement last month. 

An American Airlines spokesperson declined Newsline’s request for an interview and wrote “we have nothing to add,” when asked if they want to respond about this incident.

The FAA proposed a $7,500 fine for a passenger who allegedly would not comply with the mask requirement on a February flight from Denver to California. The passenger refused to get off the plane, so the airline deboarded the other passengers, and as a result, the flight was delayed by almost 40 minutes. 

The FAA also proposed a $7,500 fine for a passenger on a February flight from Florida to Denver who allegedly refused to comply with the mask requirement.

Robert Vincent Allen, of Pennsylvania, pleaded guilty to the attempted destruction of an aircraft after starting a fire on a flight last year, causing the pilot to divert the plane into Denver. Allen was sentenced to three years of probation and over $10,000 in fines, according to court documents.

Increase in unruly behavior

There was a rate of over five unruly-passenger incidents per 10,000 flights in the last week in November and the first week of December, according to data available on the FAA’s website.

The FAA investigates all unruly passenger reports that they receive from airlines to determine if there was a violation of federal aviation regulations or laws, Gregor wrote. If the FAA determines that a violation occurred, they initiate an enforcement action. 

“We are referring egregious unruly passenger cases to the FBI for criminal prosecution review,” Gregor wrote. Between Dec. 7 and 14, there were over 100 unruly passenger reports and over 20 enforcement cases initiated. 

Alaska Airlines has seen a 25% increase in disruptive behavior in 2021 over 2020, which was 50% more than seen in 2019. “We’re also seeing many more instances of more severe incidents where passengers threatened employees or interfered with flight crew duties," Olson added.

Last month, Attorney General Merrick Garland directed U.S. Attorneys to prioritize the prosecution of federal crimes that occur on commercial flights that endanger the safety of passengers and flight crews.

Previously, the FAA closed unruly incident cases with warning notices, civil penalties or other measures, according to the FAA's website, but that's changed: “Under our current zero-tolerance policy toward unruly passengers, we are not addressing cases with warning notices or counseling.”

Airlines for America, an industry trade group, joined other organizations in sending a June letter to Garland asking that more be done to “deter egregious behavior” on flights.

“Specifically, the federal government should send a strong and consistent message through criminal enforcement that compliance with federal law and upholding aviation safety are of paramount importance,” the letter said. 

At the same time, ,saying that despite the efforts of the FAA and airlines, incidents continue and some are intensifying. 

“Unfortunately, we continue to see onboard behavior deteriorating into heinous acts, including assaults, threats and intimidation of crewmembers that directly interfere with the performance of crewmember duties and jeopardize the safety and security of everyone onboard the aircraft,” Airlines for America president Nicholas Calio wrote in a separate letter to FAA administrator Steve Dickson. 

The causes

Though there are a number of contributing factors, including alcohol, much of the spike in unruly behavior has been linked with passengers who refuse to comply with the federal face mask requirement.

“There is no one root cause of the increase in disruptive behavior, but masks are a catalyst in more than 75% of incidents,” Olson wrote. Alaska Airlines has enhanced de-escalation training for their customer-facing employees to identify and defuse situations. 

Nico Harrison was on a United Airlines flight to Denver from Montana last month and was seated next to a man who was wearing a mask at the start of the flight, but removed it shortly after boarding. “Even though they announced at the start of the flight that masks were required, the stewardess clearly saw that this man was not obeying this rule and did not say a word to him,” Harrison wrote in an email. 

A passenger looks at his phone while wearing a protective face mask at the Phoenix International Airport on March 14, 2020, in Phoenix, Arizona. (Carol Coelho/Getty Images)

Harrison, of Montana, complained via the United app but did not get a response, so he complained to the Department of Transportation, who forwarded his complaint to the airline.

United wrote to Harrison that the safety of passengers and the crew are “of the utmost importance,” and that they expect every team member to uphold and enforce the mask policy, according to an email shared by Harrison with Newsline. The airline representative wrote that she will share Harrison’s experience with the inflight management team so they can follow-up internally. 

Luke DiMarco was on a flight from Denver to Toronto in September when a passenger was removed from the plane for not wearing a mask, DiMarco wrote in a Twitter message. After the man was escorted off the plane by two crew members, the captain made an announcement that the passenger had been removed. DiMarco wrote that the incident was pretty well received by the passengers: “I think most were just in disbelief that someone would come all this way to refuse to wear a mask and miss his flight.”

Zero-tolerance policy

In January, the FAA announced its zero-tolerance policy towards unruly and dangerous behavior. Passengers who break violations or laws are now issued fines rather than compliance or administrative actions, pursuant to an order signed by Dickson. 

“The FAA has recently observed a proliferation of such conduct, including conduct stemming from the failure to wear masks in response to the COVID-19 pandemic-related health measures in place on board aircraft or conduct following the January 6, 2021 violence at the U.S. Capitol,” the order says. 

Several Coloradans have been charged in connection to the insurrection on Jan. 6. The attack occurred during a Joint Session of the U.S. Congress, which was in the process of confirming the results from the 2020 presidential election. 

The FAA created a “zero tolerance for unruly and dangerous behavior toolkit,” which includes signs for airports to display and social media memes. 

A spokesperson for Denver International Airport declined an interview request, saying that the airport has been “fortunate to not have encountered issues” like those that have been widely reported.

The FAA announced in September that since the zero-tolerance policy began, unruly behavior incidents have dropped almost in half, but still remain more than twice as high as at the end of 2020.

Under a new partnership between the FAA and the Transportation Security Administration, the FAA announced on Tuesday that they will share with the TSA the information and names of passengers who have been charged with unruly behavior. The TSA may then remove the passenger from TSA PreCheck screening eligibility.

“This partnership with FAA will help ensure the safety and security of all passengers and hold those who violate federal regulations accountable for their actions,” TSA Administrator David Pekoske said in the statement.

“If you act out of line, you will wait in line,” Dickson said. “Our partnership aims to promote safe and responsible passenger behavior.”


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