As coronavirus restrictions ease and people get back on planes, they are learning of a new travel development — passengers who behave badly aboard flights are facing US fines many times the price of the airline ticket.
In one instance, the Federal Aviation Administration penalized a customer $10,500 for not wearing a face mask despite repeated demands from flight attendants.
In another case, regulators ordered a $9,000 penalty on a customer who had slammed overhead luggage compartments while yelling obscenities.
The fines follow a January Federal Aviation Administration statement announcing the crackdown that cited an uptick in unruly behavior over face-mask requirements due to the pandemic and the deadly January 6 attack on the US Capitol by supporters of former president Donald Trump.
"We have had a big increase in the number of unruly passengers situations over the last few months," FAA Administrator Steve Dickson said Wednesday in a hearing before a House panel.
Under the FAA's enhanced compliance and enforcement policy, fines can get as high as $35,000, and the worst behavior could even draw a prison sentence.
The FAA is working "very closely" with airlines and unions representing airline workers "so that we get this under control," Dickson said.
The agency has received around 1,300 complaints about unruly passengers since February, finding potential violations in about 260 cases.
The FAA has so far launched 20 formal actions and is preparing additional enforcement cases. In 2019, the agency officially opened 142 cases involving difficult passengers.
Most of the fines involve customers who refuse to wear face masks, a US requirement since September.
Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, applauded the FAA's moves, describing the mask requirement as a common sense measure.
"Our planes are a microcosm — the conflicts that bubble up in our public life always show up in the cabin," Nelson said in a column posted Sunday.
"But from Day one of training, we're taught that we have to leave our differences, political and otherwise, at the airport doors," she said. "When it comes to safely flying through the air, there's no room for disagreement."
Recent penalties include a $32,750 fine on a passenger to New York from the Dominican Republic who refused to wear a face mask, threw an empty alcohol bottle into the air, shouted at crew members and grabbed at flight attendants.
As a result, the flight returned to the Dominican Republic, the FAA said.
Most airlines queried by AFP declined to elaborate on individual incidents. But United Airlines said it had barred some 750 passengers from future flights for not wearing a mask.