An American Airlines flight attendant.
The Federal Aviation Administration logged more than 5,300 flight disturbances this year.
The vast majority are categorized as "mask-related incidents."
AG Merrick Garland instructed prosecutors in a memo to step up and coordinate enforcement during the holidays.
Federal prosecutors should increase their efforts to hold passengers responsible for threats and violence that occur on flights during the holiday season, US Attorney General Merrick Garland said Wednesday.
In a two-page memo to US attorneys, Garland said the Department of Justice was "concerned about a rise in criminal behavior" on commercial flights.
As of November 23, the Federal Aviation Administration had logged 5,338 reports of unruly passengers this year, over 70% of which were listed as "mask-related incidents." The FAA launched investigations into more than a thousand of the cases, compared to just 146 investigations in 2019.
But just 266 of those incidents have resulted in enforcement actions — the FAA itself can impose up to $37,000 in civil penalties — with 37 cases referred to the Justice Department for potential criminal prosecution.
The referrals have resulted in charges against at least two people: a woman who was filmed punching a flight attendant in the face, and a man accused of slamming his hand into the nose of a flight attendant and breaking bones in her face.
Garland instructed prosecutors to pursue more such cases, telling them in his memo to "prioritize prosecution of federal crimes" on commercial flights and spread the word to state, local, and tribal authorities that such enforcement is a top concern for the Justice Department.
"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," Garland said in a statement.
Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, told Insider last month that her union was pushing for such action.
"It feels like I spend the majority of my time managing grown-ups that are misbehaving or behaving poorly," she said, "when I should be worried about making sure that everybody's safe."
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