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FIRST ON CNN: Feds fine unruly and maskless airplane passengers as violent incidents increase

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Federal authorities are planning to fine two unmasked and unruly passengers accused of hitting and grabbing flight attendants amid a rash of disruptive and sometimes violent incidents on board planes.

One passenger accused of grabbing and striking two flight attendants during a February flight faces a fine of $32,750, the Federal Aviation Administration told CNN on Wednesday. A passenger on a different flight is accused of hitting “one of the flight attendants with his bags” and faces a $16,500 fine.

Altogether, the FAA on Wednesday disclosed four new fines against passengers from among 1,300 reports of passenger misbehavior sent in by flight crews in the past three months alone, a spokesman said. Investigators have so far identified potential violations in about 260 of those cases, and the four new fines bring the number of cases the FAA has described publicly since late 2020 to 13.

Reports from flight crews of unruly passengers used to be so infrequent that the FAA did not tally them, a spokesman said. But alarm grew within the agency as incidents appeared to climb. Instead of one report of a troublesome passenger every few days, flight crews were calling in with multiple issues daily, the spokesman said. At the same time, the number of passengers is significantly depressed — still 40% below pre-pandemic levels, according to air carrier group Airlines for America.

The Biden administration’s mandate that travelers wear face masks on board planes, trains, subways and buses and at transportation hubs like airports has been a particular concern. The Transportation Security Administration, which enforces that mandate, has received nearly 2,000 reports, an official recently told CNN.

The largest FAA fine disclosed Wednesday is to a passenger who allegedly “grabbed a flight attendant’s arm, causing her pain,” and “struck the arm of another flight attendant twice and scratched his hand.”

Her outburst also included throwing an alcohol bottle and food, shouting obscenities and ignoring requests to comply with the face mask directive, the FAA said.

The agency said that JetBlue Airways flight headed to New York was forced to return to the Dominican Republic. Flight tracking data shows the plane was in the air for about an hour. The airline did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Another passenger is accused of hitting a flight attendant with luggage while exiting a Southwest Airlines aircraft after an outburst in January. That flight did not leave the ground in Chicago.

“When a second flight attendant instructed the passenger to wear his mask over his nose and mouth, he became combative and used offensive language,” the FAA said. The passenger was ultimately asked to leave. As he carried his luggage off the plane, “he called each of the two flight attendants ‘pathetic,’ and hit one of the flight attendants with his bags.”

Southwest did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the incident.

The FAA proposed a $9,000 fine against a passenger who it says “began walking up and down the aisle” during takeoff. That Delta Air Lines flight in December from Minneapolis to Philadelphia returned to the airport.

The agency also called for a $9,000 fine against a passenger whose noncompliance with the mask mandate in late January caused the Alaska Airlines pilot to turn back to the gate before takeoff.

FAA Administrator Steve Dickson in January announced a zero-tolerance approach to disruptive or abusive passengers in airplane cabins. “We will not address these cases through warnings or counseling,” he said, and will instead pursue fines and jail time.

The president of a major flight attendant union told CNN the zero-tolerance approach helps flight attendants who are stuck dealing with belligerent customers.

“It means everything to have that backing and to send a very clear message to travelers that these are the rules and these are the consequences if you don’t comply,” said Sara Nelson of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA.

The FAA did not identify the passengers by name, so they could not be contacted for comment. The passengers can challenge the FAA’s accusations and dispute the fine amounts.

Correction: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized the results of the investigation, which found potential violations.

Article Topic Follows: National Politics

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