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Attorney General Garland orders federal prosecutors to make air travel assault cases a priority

The vast majority of disputes this year have stemmed from federal mask mandates for planes, the Federal Aviation Administration said.
Image: Merrick Garland Confirmation Hearing To Be Attorney General Before Senate Judiciary Committee
Merrick Garland at a Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing in Washington on Feb. 22.Demetrius Freeman / The Washington Post/Bloomberg via Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — Attorney General Merrick Garland directed government prosecutors Wednesday to make federal crimes on commercial airliners a priority after a spate of violent outbursts on planes.

In a memo to U.S. attorneys and the FBI, Garland said the Justice Department is concerned about the rise in criminal behavior on planes that endangers the safety of passengers, flight crews and flight attendants.

“Passengers who assault, intimidate, or threaten violence against flight crews and flight attendants do more than harm those employees. They prevent the performance of critical duties that help ensure safe air travel,” he said.

The Justice Department and the Federal Aviation Administration are sharing information more quickly about such cases, and the FBI is looking into dozens of incidents, Garland said. The FAA said it has received 5,338 reports of unruly passengers this year, the vast majority of them originating as disputes over the requirement to wear masks to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.

The Transportation Security Administration's mask requirement for passengers on planes, buses and trains is scheduled to expire Jan. 18. But it has been extended twice before.

Aviation officials said the number of incidents dropped after the FAA launched its Zero Tolerance campaign and began assessing stiff fines against unruly passengers.

In a recent case, a California man was charged with attacking a flight attendant on an American Airlines flight from New York to Orange County, California, forcing the plane to make an emergency landing in Denver. The man, Brian Hsu, 20, of Irvine, was charged with assault and interfering with a flight crew. He was released on $15,000 bail.

A woman was fined $24,000 this year after she was alleged to have failed to wear her mask and to have become disruptive on an American Airlines flight from Tampa, Florida, to Miami. On her way off the plane, authorities said, she assaulted a flight attendant by shoving her in the chest.