Airlines, unions urge U.S. to prosecute 'egregious onboard conduct'

WASHINGTON, June 21 (Reuters) - A group representing major U.S. airlines and aviation unions on Monday wrote to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland asking the Justice Department to prosecute the growing number of disruptive and violent air passengers.

The Justice Department did not immediately comment on the letter, first reported by Reuters.

The letter from Airlines for America, which represents American Airlines (AAL.O), Delta Air Lines (DAL.N), United Airlines (UAL.O), Southwest Airlines (LUV.N) and others, along with major unions said the "incidents pose a safety and security threat to our passengers and employees, and we respectfully request the (Justice Department) commit to the full and public prosecution of onboard acts of violence."

The head of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Steve Dickson, in January imposed a zero-tolerance order on passenger disturbances aboard airplanes after supporters of former U.S. President Donald Trump were disruptive on some flights around the time of a Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol attack.

The agency has pursued some form of enforcement action more than 400 times in the first five months of 2021, compared to a year-end total of 146 in 2019, and has initiated 57 civil penalty actions. Flight attendants and other airline officials ascribe the rise to increased societal conflict and differences over how to address the coronavirus pandemic from mask requirements to limits on alcohol consumption.

Monday's letter added that the airlines and unions hope the Justice Department "will commit to taking action, along with coordination with the FAA, to ensure that egregious onboard conduct is fully and criminally prosecuted, sending a strong public message of deterrence, safety and security."

In a separate letter to Dickson, the groups asked the FAA to "refer abhorrent cases" to the Justice Department "so that the federal government may fully, swiftly and publicly prosecute criminal acts to the fullest extent of the law and deter this dangerous and concerning behavior."

An FAA spokesman said the agency "will continue to work with local law enforcement and the DOJ to make it clear that unsafe and unruly behavior simply does not fly."

The letter to Garland said that since the FAA's zero- tolerance policy was announced, the agency has received more than 3,039 reports of unruly behavior and has opened 465 investigations into assaults, threats of assault or interference with crew members.

More than 2,300 cases included passengers refusing to wear face masks as required on all airplanes, while Delta has banned more than 1,200 people from future flights for failing to wear masks. The U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) on April 30 extended a federal face mask mandate on airplanes and in airports through Sept. 13.

In May, the Transport Workers Union of America, which represents Southwest flight attendants and was among the signers, said in a letter there were 477 passenger misconduct incidents on Southwest Airlines from April 8 to May 15.

"This past weekend, one of our Flight Attendants was seriously assaulted, resulting in injuries to the face and a loss of two teeth," the union wrote in a May 24 letter to Southwest Chief Executive Gary Kelly. "Today’s traveling environment requires a new level of firmness in both tone and direction to ensure proper control in the cabin."

On June 11, two passengers on a United flight were removed from a plane before it left San Francisco for fighting over an arm rest, according to the airline and fellow passengers.

The FAA has been proposing large civil penalties for disruptive passengers including for some who have assaulted flight attendants. Many have been fined for drinking alcohol onboard airlines, where it is still banned and several airlines have extended the alcohol ban because of poor passenger behavior.

Others signing the letter were the Air Line Pilots Association, Allied Pilots Association and Association of Flight Attendants and Regional Airline Association.

Reporting by David Shepardson, Editing by Franklin Paul

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