Airline feuds: Justice Department will prosecute ‘any U.S. citizen’ who assaults passenger

The Justice Department has ordered federal prosecutors across the country to consider bringing cases against anyone who assaults a pilot, flight attendant or passenger in an airline’s secure or confined areas, including restrooms.

The move, which comes amid revelations that a pilot from National Airlines threw a bottle of beer at a passenger in the lavatory after that passenger unfriended her on Facebook, highlights the growing number of disagreements in airplanes that have ended in violence.

Those conflicts have in some cases erupted when passengers disagree with crew members about moving luggage or seating arrangements, have been triggered by catcalls or taunts, or have crossed lines they shouldn’t by being overly aggressive or belligerent, federal officials say.

People with mental illness and other factors can face criminal charges under certain circumstances. The move targets those cases, which prosecutors say have been increasing.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions “encourages them to aggressively pursue these cases to hold those accountable who use unlawful force against federal aircrew members or those for whom this type of conduct could lead to criminal charges,” Justice Department spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores said.

In a memo dated Friday and obtained by CNN, attorney general Jeff Sessions “directs the director of the United States attorney’s office for the Northern District of Alabama, [the] attorney general’s criminal division and the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation to consider pursuing criminal prosecutions of any U.S. citizen or other person who unlawfully or with undue recklessness injures a pilot, flight attendant, or passenger in an aircraft’s secure or confined areas, including restrooms.”

Federal prosecutors in Alabama are expected to begin taking down cases of assault against flight attendants in federally secured and confined areas based on the memo.

“All actions that interfere with the safe operating or carrying on of an airline flight must be dealt with as criminal activity,” the memo says.

The Justice Department has already filed cases in several states and has other pending civil rights investigations, the memo said. “All options should be pursued,” it said.

The Justice Department has asked for suggestions to strengthen security and deter incidents of violence by customers and crew members. Sessions wants to know what other agencies have done to bolster security, and whether they have made changes to prosecutions.

That would help the department decide how to proceed on future cases.

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