Airline Passengers Behaving Badly Rarely Face U.S. Prosecution

The passenger on the Alaska Airlines flight repeatedly dialed 911 before it even left the gate in Seattle. He claimed the plane was being hijacked. Then he called the FBI to say there was a bomb.

Police stormed the plane and evacuated everyone before discovering it was a hoax. The false report delayed the Jan. 23 flight for hours, forced the rescreening of baggage and may have broken a federal law that could land the passenger in prison for five years.

But, so far, no charges have been filed.

That may be because misconduct on airliners -- which in the past year includes everything from passengers who refuse to wear face masks to others who assault flight attendants -- is governed by a patchwork of federal, state and local agencies that aren’t always well equipped to prosecute such cases.

“It is a problem,” said Loretta Alkalay, the former FAA eastern regional counsel and an adjunct professor at Vaughn College of Aeronautics & Technology. “The state police usually don’t have jurisdiction. Once it’s in flight, that’s the fed’s jurisdiction and the U.S. attorneys are overwhelmed by more serious cases.”

More than 3,500 reports of unruly passengers on flights have been logged this year by the Federal Aviation Administration, far exceeding anything the agency has seen in the past. Of those, 581 were deemed serious enough to prompt a formal investigation, the FAA said.

But the agency -- which has a primary mission of ensuring air safety, not security -- has no authority to bring criminal charges. Since December it has announced 46 civil penalty cases.

The government is straining to keep up.