Despite more than 3,400 complaints registered to the Federal Aviation Administration so far this year of unruly airline passengers - including incidents of physical assault of flight crew including one instance of a flight attendant having two teeth knocked out - prosecution has proved elusive.
That's according to a new report from Bloomberg News Service, which noted a patchwork of federal, state and local agencies aren't always well equipped to prosecute such cases.
"It is a problem," said Loretta Alkalay, the former FAA eastern regional counsel and an adjunct professor at Vaughn College of Aeronautics & Technology. "The state police usually don't have jurisdiction. Once it's in flight, that's the fed's jurisdiction and the U.S. attorneys are overwhelmed by more serious cases."
FAA investigations through July 20 have already exceeded prior years. But the agency - which has a primary mission of ensuring air safety, not security - has no authority to bring criminal charges. Since December it has announced 46 civil penalty cases.
A Bloomberg News review of FAA cases, court records and news reports found several instances of serious cases in which passengers allegedly struck flight crew members or engaged in other criminal acts but no charges were filed.
"If it's a criminal activity, it ought to have criminal prosecution," Southwest Airlines Co. Chief Executive Officer Gary Kelly said on a conference call Thursday. "There are extreme cases out there that are occurring and I think that we will be for the full enforcement and letter of the law, whatever is available. We would be in support of that."
"The system was not designed to deal with air rage incidents because they were always few and far between," said Jeffrey Price, an airport security consultant and professor at the Metropolitan State University of Denver.
It's a difficult situation for all involved and building a solid case takes time and resources, Alkalay, the former FAA regional counsel, said.
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