A coalition of labor unions representing tens of thousands of airline industry workers urged the Justice Department to step up its prosecutions of unruly passengers on Thursday.
In a letter to Attorney General Merrick B. Garland, the group asked the department to pursue and prioritize prosecutions of people who assault passenger service agents, many of whom have been attacked at airport gates, ticket and reservation areas and other airport locations during the pandemic.
The request comes at a turbulent time for the airline industry, which began to see a spike early last year in violent and disruptive passengers who have refused to follow Covid protocols and attempted to interfere with flight crew.
“The department has not meaningfully pursued federal penalties against individuals who assault or interfere with passenger service agents,” the letter said. It was signed by six labor organizations, including the A.F.L.-C.I.O.’s Transportation Trades Department, the Association of Flight Attendants-C.W.A. and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.
Greg Regan, the president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O.’s Transportation Trades Department, said he was pleased to see the Justice Department take some steps to address the rise in violent incidents aboard planes, but that more work needed to be done in response to assaults against passenger service agents.
“When you see this sort of widespread violence and abuse toward transportation professionals, this is where leadership from the federal government is vital,” Mr. Regan said.
The Justice Department declined to comment on the letter Thursday.
The department said in November it would prioritize the prosecution of federal crimes on commercial aircraft, but many airline and airport workers have still been unsatisfied with the federal government’s pace of action. There have been 499 unruly passenger reports since the beginning of the year, but only 80 cases have been referred to the F.B.I. for criminal review as of Feb. 15, according to data from the Federal Aviation Administration. In 2021, there were 5,981 unruly passenger reports.
Over the past few months, passenger service agents have experienced “serious incidents of physical and verbal assault and harassment,” according to a Feb. 10 letter some of the labor organizations sent to federal officials. The groups pointed to a case at Charlotte Douglas International Airport last year, when an intoxicated passenger physically and verbally assaulted gate agents who had denied him access to a flight.
Airline executives and workers have recently implored the federal government to add unruly passengers to a federal no-fly list to bar them from commercial flights. Earlier this month, the chief executive of Delta Air Lines wrote to Mr. Garland arguing that it was a “much-needed step” toward addressing the surge in violence aboard planes and preventing future incidents.
But some Republican senators have pushed back on those calls. Eight Republican senators, led by Senator Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming, sent a letter to Mr. Garland on Monday arguing that many of the violent incidents were related to mask mandates on planes and that creating such a list would equate those passengers with terrorists.
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“The creation of this list by D.O.J. would result in a severe restriction on the ability of citizens to fully exercise their constitutional right to engage in interstate transportation,” the senators wrote. “It also raises serious concerns about future unrelated uses and potential expansions of the list based on political pressures.”
Union leaders have condemned the senators’ objections and said that disruptive passengers remain a threat to flight attendants and passengers.
“We’ve been punched, kicked, spit on and sexually assaulted,” Sara Nelson, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants-C.W.A., which represents nearly 50,000 workers at 17 airlines, said in a statement on Tuesday. “This puts everyone at risk and disrupts the safety of flight, which is never acceptable.”