The Federal Aviation Administration is practically begging airports to stop selling to-go alcohol that passengers can take onto flights, ABC News reported on Thursday, citing a dramatic spike in unruly passengers and violence against flight crews since the start of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
According to ABC News, the FAA has advised airport police to make more arrests of disruptive passengers and is asking bars and restaurants not to let patrons leave with alcoholic beverages—which many bring with them through boarding, despite current rules prohibiting them from doing so.
“Even though FAA regulations specifically prohibit the consumption of alcohol aboard an aircraft that is not served by the airline, we have received reports that some airport concessionaires have offered alcohol ‘to go,’” Steve Dickson, the FAA’s administrator, wrote in a letter to airport chiefs across the country. “And passengers believe they can carry that alcohol onto their flights or they become inebriated.”
“... Airports can help bring awareness to this prohibition on passengers carrying open alcohol onboard their flights through signage, public service announcements, and concessionaire education,” Dickson added.
Both the FAA’s internal data and a recent survey conducted by the Association of Flight Attendants, the union representing cabin crew, have pointed to alcohol as one of the biggest causes of the spike in serious security incidents on flights. The union survey pointed to in-flight mask mandates, which many travelers apparently still feel at liberty to violate at their own discretion despite them remaining in effect until at least September, as the second-largest contributing factor. Alcohol was noted to have played a role in a recent incident where Frontier Airlines staff were forced to tape a passenger who had allegedly groped two female flight attendants and assaulted a male colleague to his seat.
FAA figures stretching from the start of the year until Aug. 1. show there have been 3,715 reported incidents of unruly passengers, 2,729 of which were somehow related to mask mandates. The FAA has implemented zero-tolerance policies that can result in disruptive passengers being hit with huge fines in addition to criminal charges, but that doesn’t appear to have put an end to increased unpleasantness in the skies. The Washington Post recently reported that airlines often don’t share information about unruly travelers, meaning they can simply book tickets with another carrier following a ban. Prosecutors tend to pursue only the most serious incidents, as seeing charges against a passenger through to a verdict can be a lengthy and complicated affair involving officials from multiple layers of government.
According to ABC, in the letter to airport executives, Dickson wrote, “While the FAA has levied civil fines against unruly passengers, it has no authority to prosecute criminal cases.” Since many are released “without criminal charges of any kind,” he added, “We miss a key opportunity to hold unruly passengers accountable for their unacceptable and dangerous behavior.”
The Department of Justice told ABC that “interference with flight crew members is a serious crime that deserves the attention of federal law enforcement” and factors considered before prosecution “include egregiousness of the offense, were lives in danger, victim impact, mental health, did the plane have to make an unscheduled landing, is this a repeat offense, are there mitigating factors, etc.” The DOJ added that interference with a flight crew carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.
“What we have seen on our planes is flight attendants being physically assaulted, pushed, choked,” Sara Nelson, the president of the flight attendants’ union, told NBC News. “We have a passenger urinate. We had a passenger spit into the mouth of a child on board... These are some of the things that we have been dealing with.”
Nelson added that rates of such behavior have been “off the charts” compared to the last 20 years.