Merrick Garland vows to swiftly prosecute violent and racist passengers who disrupt flights
Judge Merrick Garland testifies before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on his nomination to be US Attorney General(AFP)

On Thursday, The Guardian reported that Attorney General Merrick Garland is vowing to prioritize prosecution of violent incidents from passengers on U.S. flights.

"Airlines and their unions have pressed the US government to push more aggressively for criminal prosecution," said the report. "Garland said in a statement that such passengers do more than harm employees. 'They prevent the performance of critical duties that help ensure safe air travel. Similarly, when passengers commit violent acts against other passengers in the close confines of a commercial aircraft, the conduct endangers everyone aboard,' he said."

According to the report, airlines have reported over 5,000 of these incidents to the federal government, and roughly 3,600 of them involve arguments over COVID-19 rules requiring passengers to wear face masks in flight.

Several of these incidents have made national news. In May, a JetBlue passenger ordered to wear a mask hurled an empty bottle of alcohol and assaulted two flight attendants on a flight from the Dominican Republic to New York. In August, an Ohio man flying to Florida had to be duct-taped to his seat after groping flight attendants. And in September, an American flight from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles, an intoxicated passenger gnawed on his mask and snarled like an animal after shouting racist abuse at an Asian woman.

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The Federal Aviation Administration has stepped up enforcement against these incidents, including $500,000 in new fines. However, the FAA can only take civil action; the DOJ is the only agency with the power to pursue criminal prosecution of these incidents.