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What Criminal Charges Can I Face for Being Drunk on a Plane Flying to Las Vegas?

Posted by Neil Shouse | Dec 09, 2015 | 0 Comments

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If you get drunk on a plane while flying to or from Las Vegas and disrupt the flight, you can face serious federal criminal charges.

Every year, hundreds of fliers are prosecuted under federal law for their unruly behavior on commercial airline flights. Crowded and delayed flights combined with alcohol, medication, or mental illness can be a toxic combination. Any disruption of a flight is taken very seriously by authorities.

Federal Jurisdiction Aboard Commercial Flights

Commercial airplanes “in flight” are under the “special aircraft jurisdiction of the United States,” which means federal laws apply to conduct aboard such aircraft. (49 U.S.C. § 46501). A plane is considered to be “in flight” from the moment all external doors are closed following boarding:

  • through the moment when one external door is opened to allow passengers to leave the aircraft; or
  • until, if a forced landing, competent authorities take over responsibility for the aircraft and individuals and property on the aircraft.

49 U.S.C. § 46501(1)

So, even if you are sitting on the tarmac, your plane is considered “in flight” and you can be prosecuted under federal law once the doors close.

There are two primary charges you could face for your behavior while intoxicated on an aircraft, though being drunk in and of itself is not an offense. You can face steep fines imposed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for “interfering” with flight attendants, and you can face criminal charges, with lengthy federal prison sentences, for “intimidating” or “assaulting” a flight attendant or other crew member.

Interference With Flight Crew

Perhaps the primary regulation that intoxicated passengers may find themselves charged with violating is interference with a flight crew.

Pursuant to the “special jurisdiction” of the federal government over commercial aircraft, the Federal Aviation Administration has issued regulations, which have the effect of federal law, as to the behavior of passengers aboard commercial flights.

Federal Aviation Regulations 91.11, 121.580 and 135.120 state that "no person may assault, threaten, intimidate, or interfere with a crewmember in the performance of the crewmember's duties aboard an aircraft being operated."

A wide range of behaviors can qualify as “interfering” with a crewmember, including:

  • failing to follow instructions
  • refusing to sit down or return to your seat when asked
  • yelling or shouting at flight attendants or other passengers
  • blocking or getting in the way of a flight attendant trying to walk down the aisle

A violation of these FAA regulations can result in civil fines of up to $25,000.

Threatening or Assaulting a Crewmember

If, however, your behavior while drunk goes beyond mere disruption to threats or physical assault on a flight attendant or crew member, you could be facing a long federal prison sentence.

A conviction for threatening or assaulting a crewmember can result in up to 20 years' imprisonment, as well as a fine of up to $250,000. If a dangerous weapon is used, you can face a life sentence. (18 U.S.C. § 3571, 49 U.S.C. § 46504.


Whether you were drunk, sober, or simply frustrated, if your disruptive behavior aboard your flight to or from Las Vegas led to your arrest, you need an experienced federal criminal defense lawyer by your side to fight the charges and help you avoid the costly penalties that you are facing. Call us today to discuss your case.

About the Author

Neil Shouse

Southern California DUI Defense attorney Neil Shouse graduated with honors from UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School (and completed additional graduate studies at MIT).

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