Disorderly or Criminal Behavior on a U.S. Flight
Being drunk on an airplane is not in and of itself a crime or even a civil offense. While pilots are prohibited by federal regulations from allowing intoxicated passengers to board a plane, the person who is punished for violating this law is the pilot – not the person who is drunk or under the influence of drugs.1
However, it is a violation of United States federal law for a passenger on a commercial flight to:
- Disrupt the flight (whether or not under the influence of alcohol or drugs),
- Fail to obey the instructions of a crew member, or
- Assault, threaten, intimidate, or interfere with a crew member in the performance of the crew member's duties.
These prohibitions are set forth in Federal Aviation Regulations sections 91.11, 121.580 and 135.120.2 They apply to all commercial flights that fall under the special aircraft jurisdiction of the United States (as discussed below), including flights involving cargo. The regulations apply not only to airplanes, but to commercial helicopter flights as well.
Penalties for Disrupting a Flight
If you violate any of the above provisions of federal law, the crew can summon the police to remove you from the flight. Punishment for your abusive behavior on an airplane can also include:
- A penalty of up to $25,000,
- A suit by the airline for its damages for the flight delay and/or diversion, and
- Federal criminal penalties.3
Flights that are Under Federal Jurisdiction
Federal laws apply to conduct aboard aircraft which are under the “special aircraft jurisdiction of the United States.” This includes commercial flights that:
- Are operated by U.S. carriers such as American Airlines or Southwest Airlines,
- Have last departed from the United States, or
- Are landing in the United States on their next stop.4
An aircraft is considered to be “in flight” from the moment all external doors are closed following boarding until:
- An external door is opened by a crew member to allow passengers to leave the aircraft; or
- In the case of a forced landing, competent authorities have assumed responsibility for the aircraft and the individuals and property on board.5
This means that even when the aircraft is parked at the terminal or sitting on the tarmac, if the doors are closed, your plane is considered “in flight.”
Criminal and Civil Laws that Apply on Airplanes
There are two primary types of charges you could face for your behavior while intoxicated on an aircraft:
- Civil fines imposed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for “interfering” with flight attendants; and
- Criminal charges for intimidating or assaulting crew members or committing other crimes against crew members or other passengers.
Common charges people are arrested for on flights include (but are not limited to):
- Criminal harassment,
- Lewd conduct,
- Disorderly conduct, and
- Making terrorist threats.
Whether or not you are under the influence, such crimes can subject you to federal criminal charges if committed on board an airplane that is "in flight" (as defined above).
Penalties for federal crimes are often stiffer than punishment for equivalent Nevada criminal offenses. In addition, there is no parole in the federal system. If you are sentenced to federal prison, you will serve your entire sentence, less only time off (if any) for good behavior. This is why if you are arrested at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, Reno-Tahoe International Airport, or another Nevada airport for a crime connected with being drunk on an airplane, it is critical to retain an attorney who has experiencing federal criminal law.
Interference with Flight Crew
Federal Aviation Administration regulations state that "no person may assault, threaten, intimidate, or interfere with a crew member in the performance of the crew member's duties aboard an aircraft being operated."
Behaviors that qualify as “interfering” with a crew member can include (without limitation):
- Failing to follow a crew member's instructions,
- Refusing to sit down or return to your seat when asked,
- Yelling or shouting at flight attendants or other passengers, or
- Blocking or getting in the way of a flight attendant trying to walk down the aisle.
FAA regulations have the effect of federal law. As noted, above, violating a federal regulation can result in civil fines of up to $25,000 per flight.
Threatening or Assaulting a Crew Member
If, under any circumstances -- including while under the influence of alcohol or drugs (even prescription ones) -- you threaten or assault a crew member, you face punishment of:
- Up to 20 years in federal prison, and
- A fine of up to $250,000.
And if you use a dangerous weapon to threaten or assault a crew member, consequences can include a life sentence.6
Arrested in Nevada for being drunk on an airplane? Call us for help…
Whether you were drunk, sober, or simply frustrated, our caring federal and Las Vegas, Nevada criminal defense lawyers are here to fight for you if you are arrested for disruptive behavior on an airplane.
We are experienced at defending federal criminal cases in the United States District Court for the District of Nevada, including at the Lloyd D. George Criminal Courthouse in Las Vegas and the Bruce R. Thompson Federal Courthouse in Reno.
For a free consultation about your case, call us at 702-DEFENSE (702-333-3673), or fill out the form on this page.
One of our experienced federal criminal defense lawyers will get back to you promptly to discuss the best defenses to your criminal charges aboard a U.S. airplane.
If you were arrested in California for drunk behavior on a flight, you may wish to contact our lawyers at the Shouse California Law Group.
- 14 CFR 91.17 (b). Except in an emergency, no pilot of a civil aircraft may allow a person who appears to be intoxicated or who demonstrates by manner or physical indications that the individual is under the influence of drugs (except a medical patient under proper care) to be carried in that aircraft.
- The first of these regulations applies to flights that are “private carriage” (that is, for one or several selected customers, generally on a long term basis). The last two apply to “common carriage” operations (that is, carriers that hold themselves out to the public as willing to transport people or property from place to place for compensation).
- See, e.g., 49 U.S. Code 46506 - Application of certain criminal laws to acts on aircraft.
- 49 U.S.C. 46501 lists aircraft that fall under the special aircraft jurisdiction of the United States. They include all civil and military aircraft of the United States, flights within the U.S., and flights that have most recently departed from the U.S. or are schedule to next land in the U.S. and do so. Also covered are flights leased without crew to people whose principal place of business (or if none, permanent residence) is within the United States, and flights that land in the U.S. with someone on board who has unlawfully seized the aircraft or threatened to do so.
- 49 U.S.C. 46501(1).
- 18 U.S.C. 3571; 49 U.S.C. 46504.