INSANE ON THE PLANE: What Can Land You in Federal Prison
Updated: Apr 25
For those of us who remember the orderly and civilized experience of flying on a commercial airliner back in the 1970s and ‘80s, today’s commercial aircraft feel more like flying barnyards. (Example: Maxwell Berry) Travelers are held captive in shrinking seats as other passengers exude filthy hygiene, consume odorous food brought onto the plane, invade personal space, let undisciplined children run wild, and use loud and excessive profanity, to name just a few of the more common offenses. Obnoxious and inconsiderate behaviors like these create tensions that can quickly escalate into air rage, particularly when alcohol is involved.
Today the U.S. aviation industry is struggling to contain an unprecedented crime wave in the skies. While air rage is a major culprit, the problem extends to a variety of other sky crime as well. In response, the FAA and federal prosecutors have begun increasingly exercising broad powers to punish and prosecute violations of federal regulations and criminal laws governing passenger behavior on commercial aircraft. Individual states may also prosecute such misconduct when it violates state law and occurs within the state’s territorial jurisdiction. For simplicity, this blog post focuses only on the enforcement of federal laws and regulations.
Following thousands of reports of out-of-control passengers including several recent high-profile incidents involving shocking violence against airline crew members, the FAA has begun assessing hefty fines against unruly passengers. These fines are designed to crack down on lawlessness and send a clear message to the flying public that air rage and other sky crime will not be tolerated. Some airlines have even imposed bans on serving alcohol in-flight until the ongoing crime wave can be contained. Considering the current trends toward increased enforcement and enhanced punishments, all air travelers should be aware that the following conduct is unlawful under FAA regulations and/or federal criminal laws and can result in serious legal consequences including fines and imprisonment.
1. Threatening, attacking, or refusing to comply with the instructions of flight crew.
In February 2021, a JetBlue passenger yelled obscenities and then body-slammed a flight attendant. In May 2021 a Southwest passenger punched a flight attendant in the mouth, knocking out her teeth. Both passengers currently face criminal prosecution for serious federal crimes.
FAA regulation 14 C.F.R. §135.120 prohibits assaulting, threatening, intimidating, or interfering with a crew member in the performance of their duties aboard an aircraft. In addition, federal criminal statute 49 U.S.C. §46504 prohibits assaulting or intimidating any aircraft crew member or otherwise interfering with their ability to perform their duties. Violations of FAA regulation §135.20 can carry heavy fines, while violations of federal criminal statute §46504 can carry heavy fines and up to 20 years imprisonment (up to life imprisonment if a dangerous weapon is used).
Refusing to comply with the instructions of flight crew members falls within the prohibition against interfering with their duties and may be fined or punished as defined above. Following several recent instances of passengers causing in-flight disturbances by refusing to comply with flight crew member instructions, the FAA responded by assessing significant fines against those passengers ranging from $15,500 to over $50,000.
2. Assaulting other passengers.
Understandably, a weary air traveler might be tempted to violently assault a seat neighbor who keeps invading his personal space while gorging on smelly airport nachos. However, it’s against the law to mete out vigilante justice on a commercial aircraft. Federal criminal statutes 49 U.S.C. §46506 and 18 U.S.C. 113 prohibit assault against any person on an aircraft, and violations can carry heavy fines and the potential for imprisonment.
3. Groping, sexual abuse, and the mile high club.
According to data from the FBI, sexual misconduct on airplanes is a growing problem. Recent incidents have included male passengers sexually groping female passengers as they slept, as well as the all-too-familiar instances of male passengers groping flight attendants under the guise of “harmless” sexual harassment. Both examples constitute serious sex crimes under federal law.
Federal criminal statutes 18 U.S.C. §§ 2241 - 2248 prohibit sexual abuse and unwanted touching defined as “sexual contact” within federal jurisdiction including aboard commercial aircraft. Violations can carry heavy fines and the potential for up to life imprisonment.
“Sexual contact” is defined in this context by 18 U.S.C. § 2246 as the intentional touching, either directly or through the clothing, of another’s private areas (including but not limited to the inner thigh, breast, groin, or buttocks) of any person “with an intent to abuse, humiliate, harass, degrade, or arouse or gratify the sexual desire of any person.” The important takeaway here is that conduct viewed by some men as mere sexual harassment (such as playfully slapping a flight attendant’s butt over her clothes) can be punished under federal law as a sex crime. In cases where unwanted touching is offensive but doesn’t rise to the level of sexual abuse or sexual contact, prosecutors can still charge the unwanted contact as assault under federal criminal statute 18 U.S.C. §113.
Finally, for passengers seeking to join the mile-high club, be advised that indecent exposure, consensual lewd conduct, and the sexual pleasuring of oneself on a commercial aircraft are not recommended for fliers who wish to avoid being fined by the FAA, prosecuted, or banned by the airline.
4. Possessing or abusing drugs and alcohol.
Data collected by the FAA shows a strong causal relationship between alcohol intoxication and various sky crimes including assaults and sexual offenses. To help manage this pervasive issue, FAA regulation 14 C.F.R. §121.575 prohibits any person aboard a commercial aircraft from drinking an alcoholic beverage unless the beverage is served by the airline. Passengers attempting to consume their own alcohol in defiance of this regulation (or in defiance of flight crew instructions) risk heavy fines under FAA regulation 14 C.F.R. §135.120 and potential criminal prosecution under federal criminal statute 49 U.S.C. §46504 for refusing to comply with flight crew member instructions. Furthermore, since alcohol abuse during commercial air travel is clearly a catalyst for other incidents that can result in heavy fines and criminal liability, today’s travelers are wise to moderate consumption until things calm down.
Commercial air travelers should always keep in mind that airports and aircraft are subject to federal jurisdiction. This is important because, while some states and municipalities have legalized certain recreational drugs such as marijuana and psychedelic mushrooms, these drugs remain illegal under federal law. Possessing illegal drugs in airports and on commercial aircraft violates federal criminal statute 21 U.S.C. §844 and can carry heavy fines and serious prison time, depending on the type and quantity of drugs involved.
5. Attempting to gain access to the cockpit or open the cabin door.
All too commonly we hear news reports of unstable passengers attempting to storm the cockpit or open a cabin door during flight. Actions like these constitute extremely serious criminal misconduct. Federal criminal statute 49 U.S.C. §46502 prohibits aircraft piracy, which includes any attempt to take over a commercial aircraft by physical means or threats. Aircraft piracy carries up to 20 years imprisonment (up to life imprisonment or the death penalty if someone is killed during the incident).
6. Carrying weapons or explosives onboard.
Each year, the TSA confiscates thousands of firearms and other prohibited weapons and explosives at airport security checkpoints across the United States. In many cases travelers were unaware that such items were contained in their luggage or that such items were prohibited on aircraft.
Federal criminal statute 49 U.S.C. §46505 makes it unlawful to bring a firearm, explosive, or bomb onto a commercial flight. Violations carry up to 10 years imprisonment (up to 20 years to life imprisonment depending on additional circumstances and whether anyone is hurt or killed). FAA regulation 14 C.F.R. §135.119 likewise prohibits carrying a deadly or dangerous weapon on an aircraft without authorization. Travelers wishing to avoid prison as their final destination or stiff fines should always double-check luggage and other carry-on items before traveling – and utilize common sense in assessing whether items such as ninja throwing stars, martial arts nunchucks, antique grenades, hand axes, or live fireworks might be considered prohibited weapons or explosives.
Much of today’s sky crime can be traced to misunderstandings about the role and authority of flight crew members. In particular, travelers should recognize that flight attendants serve critical roles in ensuring the safety of air travelers and the safe operation of commercial aircraft. They are duty-bound not only to follow FAA regulations themselves, but also to ensure compliance of those regulations by passengers. When emergencies occur, they are a commercial aircraft’s first responders. Air rage and other sky crime are more likely to occur when passengers mistakenly viewing flight attendants as waiters and waitresses instead of highly trained professionals with significant authority. This includes the authority to enforce federal mask mandates, whether or not travelers agree with such mandates.
Legal consequences for air rage and other sky crime are severe because they reflect the importance of the laws and regulations in place to ensure that flying a 750,000-lb + metal bird loaded with hundreds of passengers at 35,000 + feet and 500 + mph remains one of the safest modes of transportation available to the public. Ignoring federal rules and regulations governing commercial air travel can have disastrous consequences for many people and their families.
If this advice is coming too late or you’ve been unjustly accused of air rage or other sky crime, Houston criminal defense attorney Sean Buckley is ready to work hard to protect your rights and freedom, regardless of the circumstances. Contact us today to set up a free consultation. Sean Buckley P.L.L.C. Houston Criminal Defense.
Attorney Sean Buckley is a protégé of famed criminal defense trial lawyer Dick DeGuerin, whose influence defined Buckley’s skillset and multi-dimensional approach to defending clients. Following in the footsteps of his mentor, Buckley’s work has been favorably covered by the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and numerous other national and local media outlets. Buckley also serves as lead editor of O’Connor’s Federal Criminal Rules & Codes, a legal reference book used by criminal lawyers across the United States. He earned his B.A. from Auburn in 1996 and his law degree from The University of Texas School of Law in 1999.
To our friends in the airlines and the passengers who care... this blog is dedicated to you. Please share it with those who still don't get it.
Authors: Sean Buckley