On January 21, 2021, President Biden signed an Executive Order on Promoting COVID-19 Safety in Domestic and International Travel, which mandated mask wearing on all commercial aircraft.  In addition, all domestic United States air carriers have their own rules that require passengers to wear masks while on board a plane.

Despite this, there continue to be incidents where unruly passengers refuse to comply with these rules.  According to news reports, there have been hundreds of such incidents since December.  In order to stem this tide, the FAA is making it known that they will bring serious enforcement actions against such disruptive passengers.

No doubt many passengers believe that refusal to wear a mask is a minor or trivial offense when it comes to FAA enforcement.  What they are forgetting is the existence of longstanding, extremely serious, regulations prohibiting interference with an aircraft or impeding crewmembers in carrying out their duties.  Many of these “mask episodes” quickly escalate from a discussion of what is required, to defiance, to expulsion from the plane and even physical altercations.  The FAA’s recent, high profile actions make it clear that the agency will use these rules to press for serious sanctions.

By way of example, last week, the FAA announced that it was bringing a $14,500 civil penalty action against a passenger for “interfering with flight attendants who instructed him to wear a face mask and stop consuming alcohol he had brought on board the aircraft.”  According to the FAA, the flight attendant issued a warning, which was ignored.  The flight attendant then issued the passenger:

a “Notice to Cease Illegal and Objectionable Behavior,” and the cabin crew notified the captain about his actions two separate times. As a result of the passenger’s actions, the captain declared an emergency and returned to JFK, where the plane landed 4,000 pounds overweight due to the amount of fuel on board.

Yesterday, the FAA also publicized two additional high profile enforcement actions.  The first incident also involved a passenger who was consuming his own alcohol on the plane, refused to surrender the bottle, and refused to wear his mask.  In this case, the passenger:

shouted profanities at [the crew], slammed overhead bins and became more and more uncooperative and agitated. During the landing phase of flight, including when the plane was taxiing to the gate, the passenger stood up while the “fasten seatbelt” sign was illuminated, threw his bottle of alcohol behind a seat, and went to the lavatory. As a result of the passenger’s behavior, the flight crew requested that law enforcement meet the aircraft at the gate.

The FAA is seeking a $12,500 civil penalty for this incident.  The second action brought by the FAA this week involves a flight from Boston to Puerto Rico. The FAA alleges that:

the passenger failed multiple times to comply with flight attendants’ instructions to wear her facemask and remain seated with her seatbelt fastened. The passenger shoved a flight attendant multiple times in her chest/shoulder area, shouted obscenities at the flight attendant, and threatened to have her fired. As a result of the passenger’s behavior, the captain diverted the flight back to Boston.

The FAA is seeking a $20,000 fine against the passenger.  These actions come on the heels of the FAA’s imposition of a $27,500 fine last month against a woman for striking a flight attendant in the face over a mask dispute.

For many people, flying in the post-9/11 world has proved to be stressful.  COVID restrictions are also stressful, especially when high profile individuals are caught seemingly flouting the rules.  The combination of the two appears to be a flash point for a new round of “air rage” incidents that must be gotten under control.  Fortunately, the FAA is publicizing its willingness to punish serious offenders, and shine a spotlight on this unacceptable behavior.