FAA chief says there's been a 'disturbing increase' in passenger disruptions on flights

Key Points
  • FAA Administrator Steve Dickson said Thursday the agency is seeing "a disturbing increase" in onboard disruptions.
  • They stem from flyers disobeying airlines' face mask policies and last week's Capitol riot, he told CNBC.
  • In response, the FAA temporarily issued a more strict enforcement policy to crack down on incidents.
FAA Administrator Steve Dickson on 'zero tolerance' order for unruly airline passengers

The head of the Federal Aviation Administration told CNBC on Thursday there has been an unsettling rise in disruptions on commercial flights in recent days, prompting the regulatory agency to issue a stricter enforcement policy.

"Really over the last few days, we have seen a distributing increase in onboard incidents where airline passengers have disrupted flights with their behavior," FAA Administrator Steve Dickson said on "Squawk on the Street."

He said the episodes have stemmed partly from flyers failing to comply with face-mask policies, which have been implemented during the coronavirus pandemic, and also in the wake of the deadly, pro-Trump riot at the U.S. Capitol last week.

The FAA's new enforcement policy comes as airlines and airports are enhancing security ahead of President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration next week.

For example, American Airlines is pausing alcohol service on flights to and from Washington and Baltimore from Saturday through next Thursday. The Fort Worth, Texas-based airline also implemented this suspension after last week's Capitol riot.

Delta Air Lines will not allow passengers who are flying to airports that serve Washington to check firearms, CEO Ed Bastian told CNBC on Thursday.

Dickson said his new FAA order will temporarily bolster its long-standing approach to flight disruptions.

Instead of issuing warnings or counseling, the FAA intends to pursue legal action "against any passenger who assaults, threatens, intimidates, or interferes with airline crew members," according to a press release. The order is in place through March 30.

"I'm telling inspectors, I'm telling my attorneys in the FAA chief counsel office, that we need to expedite gathering facts on all of these [incidents] and we're going to take immediate enforcement action in appropriate situations," Dickson told CNBC.

On Monday, in a letter that was viewed by CNBC, two key Democrats in the House called on the FAA to crack down on unruly passengers. The lawmakers pointed to media reports of politically motivated disruptions in the days after the Capitol was violently seized by supporters of President Donald Trump.

Dickson agreed about the need to protect flight crews and passengers alike.

"Anytime we see a trend like this, we need to take action because traveling on a commercial airline in the United States is the safest form of travel in human history," he said. "I want to make sure it stays that way."

— CNBC's Leslie Josephs contributed to this report.

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