Having fought many times in my youth – both inside the boxing ring and out – I’m no stranger to the chaos, anger and pain that comes from engaging in or witnessing a physical altercation between people.

But thankfully, I’ve never been engaged in or witnessed a fight aboard an airplane in flight. Having flown frequently over the years, I can only imagine what it’s like to be involved with or watching fisticuffs in such dangerous and cramped quarters.

There is not much room on a plane, so when an intoxicated or insane person commits an act of violence against another passenger or a member of the flight crew, one is forced to be a ringside observer. This is especially terrible if one has a child with them.    

And even worse, there have been several cases of crazed passengers endangering the lives of the other passengers and flight crew by trying to open a cabin door in flight or trying to force their way into the cockpit.  

There have been too many physical disturbances aboard aircraft, and the Federal Government is cracking down on the offenders. 

On January 19th, Jacqueline C. Romero, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania here in Philadelphia, announced that Jessica Navarro, 31, of Winter Springs, Florida, was sentenced to nine months’ imprisonment and one year of supervised release.

Navarro pleaded guilty in June of 2023 to one count of interfering with a flight crew, one count of assaulting a flight attendant, and one count of assaulting a passenger. The criminal incident occurred on January 11, 2022, when Navarro, under the influence of alcohol, kicked the seats in front of her, spat on passengers, and physically fought the flight crew. 

According to Romero, Navarro’s conduct escalated, with Navarro striking a flight attendant and a passenger, which caused a Frontier Airlines flight that departed Orlando, Florida, to be diverted from its intended Islip, New York, destination and land at Philadelphia International Airport.

“Jessica Navarro’s violent conduct endangered and traumatized passengers, and severely inconvenienced everyone aboard that plane,” said U.S. Attorney Romero. “Air travel can already be a stressful experience, and the last thing anyone should have to deal with is such drunken and dangerous behavior en route to their destination. If you commit a federal crime aboard an aircraft, expect to be held accountable.”

Wayne A. Jacobs, the FBI’s Special Agent in Charge in Philadelphia, added, “Passengers like Navarro do more than disrupt a flight, they put all passengers and the entire crew at risk. Today’s sentencing sends a message to anyone who might engage in disruptive behavior or violence aboard an aircraft: Upon your arrival, FBI agents will be waiting to bring you to justice.”

Back in April of 2022, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) made its Zero Tolerance policy against unruly passengers permanent.   

“Behaving dangerously on a plane will cost you; that’s a promise,” said Acting FAA Administrator Billy Nolen, a former commercial pilot. “Unsafe behavior simply does not fly and keeping our Zero Tolerance policy will help us continue making progress to prevent and punish this behavior.”   

According to the FAA, the Zero Tolerance policy, combined with the agency’s public awareness campaign, has helped reduce the incident rate more than 60 percent. The FAA stated they will continue to work with its airline, labor, airport and security and law enforcement partners to continue driving down the number of incidents.      

The FAA pursues legal enforcement action against any passenger who assaults, threatens, intimidates, or interferes with airline crewmembers, and can propose civil penalties up to $37,000 per violation. 

“If you act out on a plane, you should just stay at home because we will come after you with serious consequences,” Nolen said. We have zero tolerance for unruly behavior.”

FBI Assistant Director Luis Quesada of the Criminal Investigative Division stated, “The FBI will continue to work with our FAA partners to ensure the safety of all passengers and to combat violence aboard commercial flights. We remain committed to investigating all incidents that fall within FBI jurisdiction aboard commercial flights.” 

The FBI investigates the following violations if they’re committed during a flight: 

  • Sexual misconduct, including sexual assault; indecent exposure; lewd, indecent, sexual, or obscene acts; and indecent/sexual proposal to a minor.
  • Assault, including striking or hitting, throwing an object, grabbing or unwanted touching, and spitting. 
  • Interference with flight crew members, including assault, threats or intimidation, and/or an attempt or conspiracy to do the same. 
  • Theft.

The FBI also investigates airport-based violations:  

  • Violence against persons and property at international airports. The FBI investigates this violation if:
    • the victim or offender is a United States national
    • or if the offender is located within the U.S. 
  • Interfering with airport security screening personnel ahead of a flight, including airport employees or airline employees working at the gate. 

The FBI advises that if you are a victim or witness a crime aboard an aircraft, report the incident to the flight crew and the FBI at tips.fbi.gov or call 1-800-CALL-FBI. 

Paul Davis, a Philadelphia writer and frequent contributor to Broad + Liberty, also contributes to Counterterrorism magazine and writes the “On Crime” column for the Washington Times. He can be reached at pauldavisoncrime.com.

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