Rowdy passengers can be a source of frustration for both travelers and airlines, causing delays, diversions and drama. Disrupting a commercial flight is a serious crime, but as the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit uncovered, many of these unruly passengers are set free without any criminal charges.
It’s a scenario that Morgan Hill native Rowena Shuma witnessed firsthand. In October, Shuma, who now lives in Norman, Oklahoma, was onboard a flight from San Jose to Dallas when a drunken passenger began behaving erratically.
"You could smell the alcohol just kind of wafting up. It was very strong," Shuma remembers. "He was pointing his finger, pretending it was a gun at people. He had to be restrained the whole way."
The crew restrained him with the help of another passenger as the plane rerouted to Phoenix. Upon landing, the pilot addressed the cabin.
"He said someone on the plane is being unruly. They would rather spend the night in a Phoenix jail than continue on to Dallas," Shuma said.
But, instead of a jail cell, that unruly passenger spent the night in a hotel. That’s because American Airlines did not want to persue the case according to local authorities.
That passenger was free to fly the next day.
NBC Bay Area asked American Airlines why they decided to release the passenger. A spokesperson for the airline said they do not comment on legal matters.
"I was really surprised," Shuma said. "He’s going to tell his friends, ‘Hey I did this and nothing happened.’"
As it turns out, Shuma’s story appears to be more common than one might expect. Federal law prohibits interfering with a flight crew. But airlines are not required to report rowdy passengers to the Federal Aviation Administration.
While it’s unknown exactly how many incidents go unreported, NASA maintains an anonymous database where flight crews can report incidents that are not officially reported to the FAA. That’s where NBC Bay Area found complaints of passengers smoking cigarettes, assaulting flight attendants and having sex in restrooms. Since 2001, NASA received a sharp increase in complaints, while numbers from the FAA show a decrease in enforcement.
The International Air Transportation Association tracks unruly passenger complaints worldwide. Spokesperson Perry Flint believes this is a growing problem throughout the world.
"It’s a rare occurrence in the context of the number of flights. But it’s a growing problem," Flint said.
Despite the growing trend, Flint told NBC Bay Area that often, these incidents occur without any repercussions.
"Right now, too many times, a passenger is disruptive, ruins the experience for people around that passenger, the plane lands, and the passenger walks away," Flint said.
Flint blames a loophole in jurisdictions that allows some passengers to walk free after disrupting flights to another country. IATA is encouraging nations to adopt new standards that would give authorities enhanced enforcement powers.
"Let passengers understand that unruly behavior will be brought before a court," Flint said.
From 2001 to 2014, the FAA opened a total 2,697 cases against unruly passengers. According to the FAA, some of the more egregious cases were brought to the Department of Justice for criminal prosecution.
Figures from the Department of Justice show a total of 460 defendants were charged with interfering with a flight crew during that same time period.
However, these enforcement efforts do not discourage some passengers from bad behavior.
"It’s kind of an exciting experience," said Phil Kessler, owner of the Mile High Club.
Since 1996, Kessler has operated the website that allows travelers to brag about their in-flight sexual exploits. NBC Bay Area asked Kessler why a growing number of passengers choose to disregard security protocols.
"It’s not legal . . . I think that probably adds to the mystique because of the potential for being arrested," Kessler said. "That kind of adds to the experience I think."
If prosecuted, unruly passengers can face up to $25,000 in fines and potential jail time, a penalty that Shuma would like to see more widely enforced.
"I think [with] an airline you don’t mess around. It’s not a place to mess around," Shuma said.
NBC Bay Area also spoke with commercial pilots who said they have seen the number of in-flight disturbances rise exponentially. They believe, as plane sizes increase and commercial airlines try to cram more passengers into planes, these problems will persist.