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37 incidents of unruly passenger behavior on airplanes are headed to the FBI for criminal review

37 unruly passenger cases referred to FBI
37 unruly passenger cases referred to FBI 00:26

Of the roughly 5,000 reports of unruly passenger behavior this year, the Federal Aviation Administration has so far submitted 37 incidents to the FBI for criminal review, CBS News has learned. The referrals are in addition to civil penalties — more than $1 million proposed this year — for bad behavior in the skies and any criminal charges brought by local authorities. And more FBI referrals could be coming as the FAA investigates existing reports.

The FAA and Department of Justice have worked together since August to develop an "efficient method for taking legal action on the most egregious cases," the agencies said Thursday in a joint statement shared with CBS News.

"Let this serve both as a warning and a deterrent: If you disrupt a flight, you risk not just fines from the FAA but federal criminal prosecution as well," said FAA Administrator Steve Dickson in the statement.

As of Thursday, the FAA has investigated 950 of the 5,033 incidents reported, including 3,642 involving masks. So far, it has initiated enforcement in 227 cases.

Where the evidence supports criminal review, the FAA refers the cases to the FBI, which forwards those that merit potential prosecution to field offices for further investigation, according to the statement. Dickson had said in an August letter to airport officials that "many of these passengers were interviewed by local police and released without criminal charges of any kind."

The FAA implemented a zero-tolerance policy for bad behavior in January, and Dickson told senators Wednesday that while rates, which spiked during the pandemic, have fallen, the agency has "still got a ways to go."

"What we're focused on now is closing the seams between how airlines and airports and law enforcement and the federal government handle these issues and we've made a good bit of progress but we have more to go," he said.

The Department of Justice announced criminal charges within the last week in two separate incidents of passengers allegedly assaulting flight attendants.

A federal grand jury in Seattle indicted Ryan Cajimat, 21, with interference with flight crew members and attendants as well as assault within a special aircraft jurisdiction stemming from a Christmas Eve 2020 incident on a Delta Airlines flight from Honolulu to Seattle. 

Brian Hsu, 20, was charged with interference with a flight crew and assault within the special aircraft jurisdiction of the United States stemming from what American Airlines CEO Doug Parker called "one of the worst displays of unruly behavior we've ever witnessed," which resulted in the flight from New York to Orange County, California, being diverted to Denver.

"Expeditiously referring the most violent, physical assaults against crewmembers and passengers to the Department of Justice for public prosecution is the most effective way to deter bad actors and put a stop to the spike in disruptive passengers," said Sara Nelson, president of Association of Flight Attendants-CWA International, which represents more than 50,000 flight attendants at 17 airlines. Nelson praised the partnership, but also called for a central list of people involved in in incidents who could be banned.

"If a passenger physically assaults crewmembers or other passengers on one airline, they pose a risk to passengers and crew at every airline. They should be banned from flying on all airlines. Period," she said in the statement.

Each airline keeps its own internal ban list, which is separate from the federal No-Fly list. Delta Airlines, which said it has banned more than 1,600 passengers since the federal government started requiring passengers to wear masks, has called on airlines to share their lists.

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