Feds Declare Zero Tolerance for Airplane Disorderly Conduct

Videos of airline passengers causing mid-flight disturbances are everywhere. Unruly passengers fight, argue, and hurl profanity-laced threats at each other while flight attendants are threatened, screamed at, and physically assaulted. But the videos don’t show what happens to these menacing passengers after they’re removed from the plane. 

Criminal Disorderly Conduct on a Plane 

In late November 2021, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland ordered federal prosecutors across the country to prioritize the indictment and prosecution of criminal conduct on commercial aircraft. The new emphasis on charging airplane passengers with federal crimes when they disrupt a flight is a big change from the traditional civil fines imposed on “troublemakers” by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Now, if you cause a disruption during a flight, you could face a $37,000 civil fine for each violation and face federal felony charges carrying up to 20 years in prison

Defending Charges of Interference with a Flight Attendant or Crew 

Since the Department of Justice is bringing more criminal indictments against passengers for “in-flight misconduct,” you or one of your family members may find yourself accused of behavior the government thinks crossed the line. Is yelling at another passenger illegal? What if you were only responding to an aggressive passenger who threatened you?  

What Constitutes Criminal Conduct on an Airplane? 

Special Aircraft Jurisdiction — Federal law provides for something called “special aircraft jurisdiction” which allows the government to prosecute crimes that occur on planes “during flight.” According to the law, a plane is in flight not only when it is literally flying, but also when the plane is on the ground and the doors are closed. If one of the plane’s doors is open, then jurisdiction to prosecute any crime remains with the city and state where the plane is located.  

Interference with Flight Crew or Flight Attendant 

What conduct is a violation of the federal criminal statute? 

An individual on an aircraft in the special aircraft jurisdiction of the United States who, by assaulting or intimidating a flight crewmember or flight attendant of the aircraft, interferes with the performance of the duties of the member or attendant or lessens the ability of the member or attendant to perform those duties, or attempts or conspires to do such an act, shall be fined under title 18, imprisoned for not more than 20 years, or both. However, if a dangerous weapon is used in assaulting or intimidating the member or attendant, the individual shall be imprisoned for any term of years or for life. 

49 U.S.C. §46504 


It’s no surprise that any passenger who physically assaults a flight attendant or other flight crew member can be open to criminal prosecution. The common-law understanding of an “assault” is the offensive touching of another person without their consent. In many states, this kind of assault is called “battery.” But the common law includes another definition of assault; when a person threatens to hurt someone and has the apparent ability to do so. In the context of air travel, it is possible to be charged with assault even without physically touching the alleged victim.

An experienced criminal defense lawyer would challenge the application of an assault charge in a case without physical contact, but the statute does not prohibit the prosecutor’s reading of the law. A person who commits a simple assault on a plane under this federal law is guilty of a misdemeanor. 

Intimidation of Flight Crew Member: 

Intimidating a flight attendant or other member of the flight crew is a felony under federal law and carries a sentence of up to 20 years in prison.  

What counts as intimidation of a crew member?  

Criminal intimidation of a crew member can be anything you do or say that would have caused a reasonable person in a similar situation to be fearful. A prosecutor does not need to prove you intended to frighten the flight crew member, but only that the action or words would have instilled fear in another person. The law doesn’t even require that the crew member actually experience any fear.  

The extraordinarily broad reach of this criminal statute highlights the need to hire the most qualified criminal defense lawyer you can find. In Tampa, the Stechschulte Nell Law Firm commits to defending any person criminally charged with any kind of in-flight disorderly conduct on any aircraft. 

Interference with Flight Attendant or Crew Member 

Another crime a disruptive airplane passenger can be accused of is “interfering” with a crew member, usually a flight attendant.  

What is criminal interference with a flight attendant?  

Some airline passengers might think flight attendants are there to serve them meals and drinks, but their responsibilities extend far beyond just food service. Flight attendants’ chief assignment is executing safety procedures mandated by the Federal Aviation Administration and the internal policies of their airline. Their duties include enforcing seatbelt compliance, explaining and assisting oxygen mask use and emergency exit procedures, and providing help and first aid to disabled and ill passengers. Even the food service is scheduled to be completed within a timeframe that permits the flight attendants to clear the serving equipment and secure loose items as a safety priority.  

Any disruptive conduct by a passenger that negatively affects the flight attendants’ performance of their duties could be the basis of a felony interference charge. In 2016, a federal court ruled that “without a prohibition on interference, the crew could not maintain the ‘calm, safe and orderly environment’ vital to commercial air travel.” 

Criminal Defense Lawyers for Accused “Unruly Airline Passengers” 

Being charged with any criminal offense for something you did or said on an airplane is an extremely serious threat to your liberty. You need to contact an expert criminal defense lawyer with years of experience handling federal court litigation and federal indictments.  

Fighting the power of the United States Department of Justice, with its unlimited resources, requires the service of professional criminal defense lawyers who are not intimidated by government prosecutors and who are comfortable in the courtroom. At Stechschulte Nell, Attorneys at Law, we are ready to help. 

Call us for a case review today: 813-280-1244. 

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