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A USA TODAY investigation into FAA documents offers an inside look at unruly passenger cases and FAA enforcement and consequences. VPC

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One man emerged from the lavatory naked, ran down the aisle and tried to barrel his way into the cockpit after a plane landed. Another passenger hit a flight attendant with a seat-belt buckle during a tantrum. And, more than a few times in the past five years, flight crews have reported passengers flailing about wildly, spitting, cussing and even biting people until they're zip-tied or even duct-taped to seats.

Congress grants the Federal Aviation Administration wide latitude to issue hefty fines, up to $25,000, when passengers' air rage disrupts a flight or otherwise endangers others on board. But, FAA wields that hammer in a small fraction of cases reported by flight crews, according to a review of documents obtained by USA TODAY under the Freedom of Information Act.

Of about 750 flight crew reports filed with the FAA from 2009 to 2013, only one in six have resulted in civil fines so far. The rest included cases where FAA issued a warning letter or investigators couldn't substantiate flight crews' complaints. FAA declined to break down the figures or further explain cases that didn't result in a fine.

When the FAA did levy a fine, more than 83 of the 126 unruly passengers were able to negotiate substantial reductions of hundreds or even thousands of dollars. In 62 incidents, fines that passengers ultimately paid were less than 50% of the original penalty. Three passengers negotiated the fine down to $0.

In the five years' worth of documents outlining unruly passenger settlements, the FAA levied about $1 million in fines. Ultimately, the agency settled the cases and billed a total of about $435,000 due to passengers proving financial hardship, and other mitigating factors like controlled substance use or mental health. The most serious cases of crime are turned over to the Justice Department for investigation.

"Interfering with the duties of a crewmember violates U.S. law," FAA spokeswoman Alison Duquette wrote in a prepared statement, the agency's only response to questions about its enforcement decisions. "The repercussions for passengers who engage in unruly behavior can be substantial and serve as a deterrent."

The hundreds of pages of summaries paint a picture inside cramped cabins of violent passengers assaulting flight attendants, drunkenly threatening passengers and – frequently – losing control when the flight crew asks them to do something they don't want to do.

"The FAA and authorities need to pursue these severe penalties for bad actors since in a confined space so much can go wrong," said Sara Nelson, president of Association of Flight Attendants, which represents 60,000 flight attendants at 19 airlines.

USA TODAY's review of the resolved case files shows more than one-fourth of the finable incidents stemmed from alcohol use and about one-fifth started with passengers' use of their mobile devices. About 10% involved fliers trying to smoke on airplanes.

Flight crews decide

Reports of unruly incidents to the FAA were down to 121 in 2014, the lowest in five years. The flight crew decides whether to report an incident to FAA. Safety advocates attribute the decrease to two-fold deterrents: a "zero-tolerance" policy by flight crews and an increase in fine structure that allows for up to $25,000 per violation of interfering with a crew member.

While cell phone video of berserk passengers grabs headlines, the incidents are still surprisingly rare, said Leslie Mayo, spokeswoman for the 25,000 members in the Association of Professional Flight attendants who said workers can "diffuse 99 % of the incidents and it's the 1% egregious passengers you hear about."

Still, several high-profile passenger incidents last year led to emergency diversions, sending the plane back to its originating airport or a different airport than its intended destination.

Some examples included fighter jets escorting a plane back to Toronto in August, an American Airlines flight diverted to Phoenix after a man acted out in May, and a JetBlue flight bound for Las Vegas landed in Detroit after a man "flipped out" in June.

Each diversion costs an airline about $200,000, says Perry Flint of the International Air Transportation Association. His organization is pushing to change the way penalties are issued. The United Nations sets the rules based on where aircraft are registered, which the transport association an outdated rule that does not fit a modern industry with worldwide lease agreements.

The FAA issued its stiffest penalty, $34,125, to a passenger flying from Shanghai to Chicago that diverted to Tokyo. The man cursed and spat at other passengers before swinging a seat belt buckle at a flight attendant. He was handcuffed and ultimately duct taped to his seat after trying to bite other passengers.

Among the other biggest fines for bedlam on planes included:

  • $27,500 for a man that sprinkled water throughout the cabin rambling about Satan, damaged a lavatory and threatened to blow up the plane before it diverted to New Mexico.
  • $25,000 for a glassy-eyed New York-bound man that assaulted a passenger after drinking from his own liter bottle of Dominican rum.
  • $18,000 for a man who groped a female flight attendant's leg, hand, breast and crotch and assaulted a fellow passenger.
  • $15,000 for a woman that stood, swore and threatened to stab a flight attendant with "a Rambo knife."

Whereas internal FAA regulations call for maximum $25,000 fines for smoking on planes and distracting crews, several incidents involving cigarettes in lavatories resulted in fines of $500 or less.

In 2011, a man flying from Tampa to Milwaukee lit up twice in the onboard bathroom. His fine: $50.

"That's my worst nightmare, the thing that scares me the most, fire on a plane," wrote Heather Poole, a flight attendant who recounts passenger incidents in her book Cruising Altitude and blog.

Poole told USA TODAY she encounters problem passengers daily and uses de-escalation techniques to prevent them from disrupting flights. She attributes full flights and cramped seat space that has shrunk in recent years as cause for the conflicts.

Alcohol served in airports and inflight can pose problems for travelers.

Peter Ivanoff, a commercial fisherman from Kodiak, Alaska, says he was over served and acted out on a flight from Anchorage to Portland in March.

"They gave us four shots each on a pretty empty plane, but I was pretty out of line," Ivanoff told USA TODAY about his $1,000 penalty. "I think I got screwed." Ivanoff said it seemed unfair that he paid the fine after the airline served him that much alcohol.

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