These days, air travel rarely brings out the best in anyone. But hitting, threatening, or interfering with a crewmember working on an airplane violates federal law and can result in a felony conviction. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) can also impose substantial fines.
For more information on the laws surrounding air travel, see Disobeying a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) Official.
The federal law aims to protect passengers and crew, making it illegal to interfere with the crew (flight attendants and pilots). Assaulting them (injuring or attempting to injure them), intimidating them, or attempting or conspiring to do so can result in a felony conviction if the defendant has interfered with the performance of the crewmember's duties. Defendants who use a dangerous weapon (any object that can be used or is used to cause death or serious bodily injury) can be punished more severely than those who do not.
(49 U.S.C. § 46504.)
For example, striking a flight attendant or trying to hurt a pilot on an airplane would probably be considered assault on a crewmember.
Actions that don't rise to the level of a physical assault (or the threat of an assault) can nonetheless dangerously affect the ability of the crew to keep the plane flying safely. Accordingly, the FAA can impose civil penalties (fines) for interfering with a crewmember who is performing official duties aboard an aircraft that is being operated. Almost any offensive or disruptive behavior that distracts the crew can be considered interference, such as:
(14 C.F.R. § § 91.11, 121.580, 135.120.)
It can be difficult to tell the difference between an assault and interference—but the difference is crucial. As just explained, interference is a civil wrong, and assault is a criminal offense. And in fact, any sort of offensive touching or threats against a crewmember can constitute both interference and assault. Usually, however, people are charged with assault only if they physically attack a crewmember or cause injury.
Keeping Your Cool at 30,000 Feet
Any time you disobey a crewmember's instructions, you run the risk of violating federal law. But civil penalties and criminal prosecutions usually result only when passengers repeatedly ignore, argue with, or disobey flight attendants; or when they act out in a way that is dangerous.
To avoid trouble in case of a disagreement:
- If possible, do as you are asked.
- Do not raise your voice or make threats.
- If you're having a problem with an attendant, ask to speak to the flight attendant in charge.
- Never, ever touch a crewmember.
If you feel that you've been treated unfairly, you can file a complaint against a crewmember with the airline or the Department of Transportation's Aviation Consumer Protection Division.
Assault. Assaulting a crewmember is punishable by up to 20 years' imprisonment, and a fine of up to $250,000. If a dangerous weapon is used, the defendant can be imprisoned for life.
(18 U.S.C. § 3571, 49 U.S.C. § 46504.)
Interference. The maximum civil penalty for interfering with a crewmember is a fine of up to $25,000. (49 U.S.C. § 46318.)
To impose a fine, the FAA files a notice of a proposed civil penalty. The passenger can request a hearing, which will be held before a federal Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). Usually, both the FAA and the passenger are allowed to present evidence, and the passenger can (and should) be represented by an attorney. After a hearing, the judge announces his or her decision, and sometimes issues a written decision. If either the passenger or the FAA requests review, the FAA Administrator reviews the judge's decision. Either party may then appeal the Administrator's decision by filing an appeal in a Federal Court of Appeals.
If you are charged with assaulting a crewmember, or if you receive notice of a proposed civil penalty for interfering with a crewmember, you should contact a criminal defense attorney who has experience defending such cases. An attorney will be able to explain the process to you, tell you how your case is likely to fare, and make the strongest arguments on your behalf so that you can achieve the best outcome in your case.