What Is Interfering With A Flight Crew? | Airplane Disturbances

Unruly airline passenger incidents remain high as, seemingly every week, we hear of a flight being diverted or delayed because of a belligerent traveler.

The friendly skies aren’t always so friendly.

In 2023, the Federal Aviation Administration received 2031 reports of unruly passengers, down from 2,455 reports the year before. In 2021, the FFA received 5,973 reports of unruly passengers, a record high.

Interfering with a flight crew is a federal crime and can bring severe penalties, including years in prison and massive fines. The FAA can also levy additional substantial civil penalties.

In this post, we’ll explain the offense of interfering with a flight crew, detail the penalties, and take a look at some cases that made the news. But first, please watch this informative video by attorney Audrey Hatcher.

What is Interfering with a Flight Crew?

According to 49 U.S. Code § 46504, the federal charge of interfering with a flight crew occurs if a person on an aircraft in flight assaults or intimidates any member of the flight’s crew, including pilots and flight attendants.

This includes interfering with or preventing the ability of the crew member to perform their job in any way.

The aircraft is considered by law to be in flight once all external doors are closed and until one external door is opened. The key point is that the plane does not have to be in the air for an offense to occur.

Again, it’s important to point out that the offense doesn’t have to include a physical assault or threat of assault to affect a crew. Actions that can be considered interference with a flight crew include:

  • Physically blocking a crew member from walking the aisle or out of the galley
  • Ignoring repeated requests to sit down, return to your seat, or turn off an electronic device
  • Threatening to hurt a crew member, a pilot, or anyone else on the airplane
  • Shining a laser pointer into a cockpit from the ground

The pertinent laws cover what is referred to as the “special aircraft jurisdiction of the United States,” which we’ll later explain in detail.

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What Constitutes Intimidating a Flight Crew Member?

Intimidation can be caused verbally or by actions. In either instance, if the victim has reasonable apprehension of pending bodily harm to them or another, intimidation could apply.

Additionally, intimidation could also include the use of words or actions to make someone fearful or from making someone refrain from doing what they normally would or would not do.

The prosecutors must prove the defendant knowingly assaulted or intimidated a crew member of the aircraft and that the offense interfered with the performance of the crew member’s duties.

What does Special Aircraft Jurisdiction of the U.S. Mean?

The term “special aircraft jurisdiction of the United States” refers to any aircraft that meets the following criteria:

  1. A civil aircraft of the United States
  2. An aircraft of the armed forces of the United States
  3. Any other aircraft in the United States
  4. An aircraft outside the United States with its next scheduled destination or last place of departure in the United States, if the aircraft next lands in the United States
  5. Any aircraft leased without crew to a lessee whose principal place of business is in the United States or if the lessee has a permanent residence is in the United States.

Can You Ignore a Flight Attendant’s Instructions?

Not even a little bit. Disobeying a crew member’s instructions brings the potential risk of violating federal law. If you’re asked to move your chair into the upright position and ignore the attendant, you could be arrested by officials when the flight lands.

Most of the incidents that end up in an arrest, however, involve a passenger arguing, repeatedly ignoring, or disobeying a crew member or act out in a way that is dangerous for crew or passengers.

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How to Avoid an Interfering with a Flight Crew Charge

Anyone who feels they’ve been treated unfairly can file a complaint against a flight crew member with the appropriate airline or with the Department of Transportation’s Aviation Consumer Protection Division. Easy ways to prevent an in-flight offense:

  • Comply with flight crew instructions
  • Never raise your voice or threaten anyone
  • Request to speak to the flight crew member in charge if having an issue with a crew member or passenger
  • Never touch a member of the crew

What is the Penalty for Assaulting a Flight Crew Member?

Assaulting a flight crew member is punishable by up to 20 years in federal prison and a fine of up to $250,000. If a dangerous weapon is used during the assault or intimidation, the punishment includes up to life in prison.

What are the Civil Penalties for Interfering with a Flight Crew or Attendant?

Interfering with a flight crew member is punishable by a civil penalty of up to $35,000. The maximum penalty was increased by $10,000 in 2018.

In these cases, the FAA could file a notice of proposed civil penalty. The passenger can fight the fine by requesting a hearing. A federal Administrative Law Judge hears the case where typically, the FAA and passenger each present evidence.

An experienced attorney is vital for the passenger in this situation. The judge decides on the punishment after the hearing. If either the passenger or FAA requests a review of the decision, the FAA Administrator reviews the judge’s decision. Later, either party can appeal the Administrator’s decision by filing an appeal in a Federal Court of Appeals.

Our lawyers are your bridge over troubled waters.

Cases of Interfering with a Flight Crew

  • In 2015, a 25-year-old Fort Worth man was convicted of interfering with a Southwest Airlines crew on a flight from Dallas to Denver. The man was sentenced to four months in prison for disrupting the flight by screaming profanities and intimidating a flight attendant before the plane was diverted to Amarillo.
  • In 2017, a 53-year-old Texas man was convicted of interfering with an American Airlines crew on a flight from Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport to Maui. The man was found guilty of one count of interfering with a flight attendant and also two counts of simple assault for threatening and verbally abusing other passengers.
  • In Sept. 2022, a 32-year-old New York woman was sentenced to four months in prison and ordered to pay $9,200 in restitution to American Airlines for interfering with a crew on a flight from Dallas to Los Angeles. She and another first-class passenger were accused of assaulting a passenger and using racial slurs. The flight was diverted to Phoenix, where the women were arrested.

Facing an Interfering with a Flight Crew Charge? Call us.

Have you been accused of interfering with a flight crew? Call the federal criminal defense attorneys at Varghese Summersett at 817-203-2220. Our experienced firm includes former federal and state prosecutors with proven track records.

Call us for a complimentary strategy session where we will:

  • Discuss the facts of your case
  • Discuss the legal issues involved, including the direct and collateral consequences of the charges
  • Discuss defense strategies and our potential approach to your case

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