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Aircraft in Flight

Overview of Offenses, Jurisdiction, and Penalties for Crimes Committed On Board Flights

Crimes committed aboard an aircraft are normally subjected to the jurisdiction of federal courts and almost all offenses involving an airplane will be prosecuted under federal statutes within 49 U.S. Code Chapter 465.

Most crimes onboard an aircraft in flight do not involve terrorism. Federal law states an incident occurs in aircraft jurisdiction when any aircraft is in flight within the United States. An aircraft is considered “in-flight” once the doors are closed after boarding until they are opened after landing.

Federal Crimes Aboard Aircraft in Flight

If you've been charged with committing a crime on board an aircraft, you're facing potentially serious consequences—in many cases, even more, serious than for the same crime committed on the ground.

Crimes in the air are usually prosecuted in federal court and can carry substantial fines and lengthy prison sentences. In cases of hijacking (piracy), the death penalty could even be on the table.

Sometimes a simple misunderstanding or miscommunication can be blown up into something far bigger than it was, and you may find yourself in a very confusing or frightening place.

On this page by our federal criminal defense lawyers, we will give you an overview of what constitutes crime on board an aircraft and its possible ramifications.

Special Aircraft Jurisdiction of the United States

The U.S. has jurisdiction for crimes committed on board an aircraft in flight if the aircraft is a civil aircraft, an aircraft of the United States armed forces, or any other aircraft in the U.S. When crimes have been committed aboard a foreign aircraft outside the U.S., the U.S. has jurisdiction provided:

  • the aircraft has its next scheduled destination or last place of departure in the U.S., if the aircraft next lands in the U.S.; or
  • if the aircraft lands in the U.S. with the individual still on the aircraft.

The U.S. also has jurisdiction for crimes committed aboard any other aircraft leased without crew to a lessee that permanently resides in the U.S. or has a principal place of business is in the U.S.

What is the Definition of “In-Flight?”

According to Title 49 U.S. Code 46501(1), after passengers have boarded and the external doors are closed, an aircraft is considered to be “in flight.”

Once a door has been opened to allow passengers to exit the aircraft, it is no longer in flight. If the aircraft had to make a forced landing, it is still in flight until the proper authorities take responsibility for the aircraft.

Type of Crimes on Board Aircraft

We defend clients who have been accused of crimes aboard aircraft in flight, including:

  • Piracy – 49 U.S.C. 46502,
  • Assault – 18 U.S.C. 113,
  • Embezzlement and Theft – 18 U.S.C. 661,
  • Receiving Stolen Property – 18 U.S.C. 662,
  • Murder – 18 U.S.C. 1111,
  • Manslaughter – 18 U.S.C. 1112,
  • Attempted Murder or Manslaughter – 18 U.S.C. 1113,
  • Robbery – 18 U.S.C. 2111,
  • Sexual Abuse – 18 U.S.C. 2241, 2242, 2243, 2244,
  • Carrying Weapons or Explosives Aboard an Aircraft – 49 U.S.C. 46505(a),
  • Conveyance of False Information or Threats Regarding Certain Offenses (Bomb Hoax) – 18 U.S.C. 35,
  • Interference with Flight Crew Members or Flight Attendants While in Flight – 49 U.S.C. 46504.

A related crime includes 49 U.S.C. § 46503 interfering with airport security screening personnel which happens before a flight. Violence at international airports is defined under Title 18 U.S. Code 37.

A Note About “Interference”

Altercations over mask mandates on aircraft have caused an increase in passengers charged with interference with flight crew members or flight attendants while in flight (49 U.S.C. 46504).

The statute covers assaulting, threatening, or intimidating a flight crew member or attendant, thereby interfering with the crew member's performance of their duties.

As of Nov. 12, 2021, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines for domestic travel during COVID-19 require passengers to wear a mask over their nose and mouth in indoor areas of public transportation (including airplanes) and indoors in U.S. transportation hubs (including airports).

Aircraft Piracy

Aircraft piracy under 49 U.S.C. § 46502, known as “hijacking,” is described as seizing or exercising control over an aircraft in flight. It includes an attempt or conspiracy to commit the offense.

Aircraft piracy outside of United States special aircraft jurisdiction is just an extension of the aircraft piracy crime. It is described as violently taking over an aircraft in flight, including an attempt or conspiracy with an American on board.

Possession of a Firearm or Explosive

49 U.S.C. § 46505 covers the possession of a loaded firearm, explosive, or incendiary device onboard an aircraft. This federal law makes it illegal to not only possess but also to place, any prohibited items onboard an aircraft.

Possession of a firearm on an aircraft is a serious federal offense, but most cases involve packing a weapon and ammunition inside their baggage and forgetting it was there.

Interference with Flight Crew Members or Attendants

49 U.S.C. § 46504 covers the federal offense of interfering with a flight crew member or attendant and includes assault or intimidation along with an attempt or conspiracy to do the same. The FAA has pledged a “zero tolerance” approach.

This is one of the more common crimes charged by federal prosecutors and often involves a misunderstanding between a passenger and crew member that quickly escalates into a heated argument.

A passenger may become intoxicated in flight and get aggressive with a flight attendant who has little patience with anything that might look like interference.

Threatening to Commit a Crime

49 U.S.C. § 46507 covers threatening to commit any type of crime, or provide false information, aboard a plane and sometimes involves a bad joke or sarcasm.

There is no tolerance by crewmembers or other passengers for anyone who makes threats on an aircraft in flight about committing a crime. A sarcastic comment could be misinterpreted as a threat to commit a crime and you could find yourself in trouble quickly.

How Much are the Fines?

According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), passengers on domestic flights this year have been fined thousands of dollars (from $9,000 to $32,000 per incident) for interfering with flight crews for behavior such as:

  • Punching and screaming at their family,
  • Pushing, punching, spitting on, kicking, and throwing trash at crew members,
  • Refusing to remain seated during takeoff or landing,
  • Yelling profanities,
  • Attempting to enter the cockpit.

The FAA, which has taken a zero-tolerance stance on disruptive behavior, began to refer cases to the Federal Bureau of Investigation for criminal review.

What are the Federal Sentences?

The federal sentencing guidelines layout mandatory minimum levels of punishment for many criminal offenses which are typically more severe than state-level crimes.

In addition to fines, a defendant convicted of a crime on board an aircraft may face a long prison term discussed below. Piracy conviction includes a maximum of 20 years in federal prison and life imprisonment if it did not result in death and the death penalty if the act of piracy caused a death.

Federal Sentences for Crimes on an Airplane

Interfering with crew members or attendants also includes a maximum of 20 years if convicted, but there is no maximum if a dangerous weapon was used.

Possessing or placing a weapon or explosive on a plane conviction carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison, but 20 years if the behavior showed a disregard for human life, and no maximum if death resulted. Threats or false information conviction includes a maximum sentence of five years.

If you are under investigation, or already indicted for a crime committed on an aircraft, then you need to contact a skilled legal team to have the best chance at a favorable outcome on the case.

Eisner Gorin LLP is based in Los Angeles County and we serve people charged with federal offenses throughout the United States. You can reach us for an initial consultation by calling 877-781-1570, or by filling out our contact form.

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