Merrick Garland

WASHINGTON — Attorney General Merrick Garland on Wednesday directed government prosecutors to make federal crimes on commercial airliners a priority following a spate of violent outbursts on planes.

In a memo to U.S. attorneys and the FBI, he said the Justice Department is concerned about the rise in criminal behavior onboard planes that endangers the safety of passengers, flight crews and flight attendants.

“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.

The Justice Department and the Federal Aviation Administration are now sharing information more quickly about these cases, and the FBI is looking into dozens of incidents, Garland said. The FAA said it has received 5,338 reports of unruly passengers so far this year, with the vast majority of them originating as disputes over the requirement to wear a mask to reduce the spread of Covid.

The face mask requirement for passengers on planes, buses and trains, imposed by the Transportation Security Administration, is slated to expire Jan. 18. But it has been extended twice before.

Aviation officials said the number of passenger behavior incidents dropped after the FAA launched its Zero Tolerance campaign and began assessing stiff fines against unruly passengers.

In one recent case, a 20-year-old California man was charged with attacking a flight attendant on an American Airlines flight from New York to Orange County, California, forcing the plane to make an emergency landing in Denver. Brian Hsu of Irvine was charged with interfering with a flight crew and assault. He was released on $15,000 bail.

Earlier this year, a woman flying on American Airlines from Tampa, Florida, to Miami was fined $24,000 after she allegedly failed to wear her face mask and became disruptive. On her way off the plane, authorities said she assaulted the flight attendant by shoving her in the chest.