By David Shepardson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. lawmakers urged major airlines to back mandatory training for flight crew members to address violent incidents amid a record number of disruptive onboard incidents.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said on Wednesday it has received a record 5,779 unruly passenger reports this year, including 4,156 incidents related to a requirement passengers wear masks to guard against the coronavirus pandemic.
The FAA, which has pledged a “zero-tolerance” approach, said last month it had referred 37 unruly passengers to the FBI for potential criminal prosecution. The FAA has initiated 1,054 investigations and 325 enforcement actions.
On Wednesday, House of Representatives Homeland Security chair Bennie Thompson and Transportation and Infrastructure chair Peter DeFazio and two key subcommittee chairs sent letters to the CEOs of American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines and Southwest Airlines urging them to require crew members to attend the Transportation Security Administration’s Crew Member Self Defense Training Program.
The lawmakers want to ensure “they are equipped with the necessary skills to deter and mitigate dangerous situations as unruly passenger behavior spikes across the country.”
They want airlines to provide crewmembers with paid time, travel and accommodations to participate in the training led by federal air marshals.
TSA resumed offering its free self-defense program in July after pausing the course due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the lawmakers noted.
American Airlines said on Wednesday it holds “the safety of our frontline team members as our highest priority, and we appreciate these lawmakers’ commitment to helping protect it. We are reviewing the letter.”
The push comes amid a holiday travel surge. The TSA says it has screened 1.98 million or more passengers in each of the last six days.
The FAA and TSA announced on Tuesday that unruly passengers facing fines may be removed from TSA PreCheck screening eligibility.
Last month, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland directed federal prosecutors to prioritize prosecution of airline passengers committing assaults and other crimes aboard aircraft.
To date, the FAA has issued more than $1.4 million in fines for unruly passengers. Many passengers who refused to wear masks have been hit with $9,000 or higher fines.
On Oct. 8, President Joe Biden instructed the Justice Department to “deal” with the rising number of violent incidents onboard planes.
U.S. prosecutors in Colorado have charged a 20-year-old California man with punching a flight attendant on an Oct. 27 American Airlines flight bound for Santa Ana, California, that forced the plane to land.
(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Howard Goller)