Epidemic Within A Pandemic: Unruly Passenger Fines in the U.S Hit $1 Million in 2021

Masakatsu Ukon, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

LONDON – There is currently an epidemic within a pandemic in the skies of America. Unruly passengers. And an inability to comply with a mask mandate.

The United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) stated via a report that it has proposed $1 million in fines in 2021 alone (Kaji & Maile, 2021).

The FAA received around 3,988 reports of unruly passengers, and still, in the wake of a pandemic, the vast majority of it is down to one simple thing. Mask-wearing.

Majority of Unruly Passengers Are Caused By The Mask Mandate

According to the report, 71% of the 3,988 reports involved passengers who refused to comply with the federal mask mandate, which has now been extended to January 2022 (ibid).

Crews in the airline industry have disclosed experiences with unruly passengers, which included verbal abuse, physical abuse, including crazy things such as trash being thrown at them.

FAA Administrator Steve Dickson.

This has caused FAA Administrator Steve Dickson to call on airport police across the country to arrest more people who are unruly or violent.

“While the FAA has levied civil fines against unruly passengers, it has no authority to prosecute criminal cases”.

This is down to police interviewing suspects and then releasing them “without criminal charges of any kind” (ibid).

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“When this occurs, we miss a key opportunity to hold unruly passengers accountable for their unacceptable and dangerous behavior,” Dickson added.

Alcohol-Induced Unruliness

A lot of the incidents are, of course, alcohol-induced. Earlier this month, “a passenger aboard a Frontier Airlines flight [was] charged with three counts of battery”, after being “accused of inappropriately touching two female flight attendants and punching a male attendant” after being under the influence (Jones, 2021).

It is not an assumption that is made when it comes to this sort of unruliness. It is becoming ever more fact-based, especially with certain airlines going as far as banning alcohol on their flights.

BriYYZ from Toronto, Canada, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The most recent example comes from American Airlines who announced that it would not serve such beverages until January 2022, in line with the extension of the mask mandate onboard all flights in the USA (Sweeney, 2021).

It joins Southwest Airlines who also suspended sales of alcohol, and was originally going to resume this next month, but with the mask mandate extended until January 2022, so does the alcohol ban on some carriers.

American did note that it would continue to sell alcohol in First Class, but no other class would benefit from what is now being seen as a perk in the wake of such adversity against wearing a mask.

Are The Punishments Severe Enough?

In the United States, the punishment for in-flight disruptions consists of either fines as high as $52,500 and up to 20 years in prison. The FAA believes that this would be enough to make people think twice about their actions in the air, but the incidents still continue (Kaji & Maile, 2021).

AviationSource’s Editor-in-Chief James Field conducted a poll on social media about whether punishments for in-flight disruptions are strong enough.

Many of those who replied believe that a more zero-tolerance approach is needed when it comes to unruly passengers, including the suggestion that the fine or prison time should be far greater as it is putting people in danger.

Others suggested that on top of existing punishments, the passenger should repay for the hassle and extra costs incurred if in the event of a flight having to divert, and an addition to the no-fly list for a minimum of five years.

With numbers of unruly passengers rising in 2021, it does offer the perspective that the punishments given may not be enough and that if anything, the fine should maybe be raised into a six-figure sum rather than a five, as well as an increase in jail time.


What remains clear is that as the mask mandate is extended until the end of the year, we will definitely see these incidents increase as the public opinion on wearing masks in certain settings continues to drop in popularity.

BriYYZ from Toronto, Canada, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The way that the FAA is angling this makes them look powerless, especially with them calling on airport police to take swifter action per see. Out of the 3,988 reports this year already, only 682 potential violations of federal law have been investigated.

Even if that figure is “the highest number since the agency began keeping records in 1995”, it is still a low percentage rate and this needs to increase exponentially (Kaji & Maile, 2021).

So if anything, it may show that the law might need to be altered, in order to give the airport police more powers in being able to get a prosecution far easier for these sorts of passengers that like to cause havoc in the skies.


  • Kaji, M. & Maile, A. (2021), Unruly airline passenger fines hit $1 million this year amid mask mandate, ABC News, https://abcnews.go.com/US/unruly-airline-passenger-fines-hit-million-year-amid/story?id=79522493 [Last Accessed 19th August 2021]
  • Sweeney, S. (2021), American Airlines Suspends Alcohol Sales in Coach Through January, ABC News, https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/american-airlines-suspends-alcohol-sales-coach-january/story?id=79542333 [Last Accessed 19th August 2021]
  • Jones, D. (2021), Frontier Airlines Passenger Taped to Seat After Allegedly Groping and Assaulting Crew, NPR, https://www.npr.org/2021/08/04/1024577106/frontier-airlines-passenger-taped-to-seat-after-allegedly-groping-assaulting-cre?t=1629412614236 [Last Accessed 19th August 2021]

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