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FAA toughens unruly passenger policy after flight disruptions in wake of Capitol riot

ABC News logo ABC News 1/14/2021
a woman standing in front of a mirror posing for the camera: A woman flying from Charlotte to D.C. was filmed refusing to wear a mask and shouting in the aisle. American confirmed the woman is now banned from the airline pending further investigation, Jan. 10, 2020. © @EmirSX A woman flying from Charlotte to D.C. was filmed refusing to wear a mask and shouting in the aisle. American confirmed the woman is now banned from the airline pending further investigation, Jan. 10, 2020.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will begin handing down stricter punishments to unruly airline passengers without a warning, including "fines of up to $35,000 and imprisonment."

FAA Administrator Steve Dickson signed the order Wednesday directing the agency to take a “zero tolerance policy” in unruly passenger cases after the agency saw a "disturbing increase in incidents" of passengers disrupting flights with "threatening or violent behavior."

"Historically, the agency has addressed unruly passenger incidents using a variety of methods ranging from warnings and counseling to civil penalties," the FAA said in a news release. "Effective immediately, however, the FAA will not address these cases with warnings or counseling. The agency will pursue legal enforcement action against any passenger who assaults, threatens, intimidates or interferes with airline crew members."

"These incidents have stemmed both from passengers’ refusals to wear masks and from recent violence at the U.S. Capitol," the agency said.

a group of people walking in front of a building: Supporters of President Donald Trump climb the west wall of the the U.S. Capitol, Jan. 6, 2021. © Jose Luis Magana/AP Supporters of President Donald Trump climb the west wall of the the U.S. Capitol, Jan. 6, 2021.

United Airlines told ABC News it has banned 60 people for mask violations in the last week alone, which is higher than their previous week averages.

MORE: US airlines ban more passengers in wake of Capitol riot

Alaska Airlines banned 14 passengers on a single flight from D.C. to Seattle one day after the riot at the U.S. Capitol. The airline said the passengers were not wearing masks and were harassing crew members.

Two days after the riot, videos showed passengers on an American flight en route from D.C. to Phoenix chanting "USA" and "Fight For Trump," eventually causing the pilot to threaten to divert the plane to Kansas if passengers didn't "behave."

The pilot was "emphasizing the importance of following crew member instructions and complying with mandatory face-covering policies," American Airlines said in a statement to ABC News.

MORE: American Airlines bans activist who was kicked off plane for refusing to wear mask

On Sunday, federal air marshals had to intervene when a a woman flying from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Washington, D.C., refused to wear a mask and was shouting in the aisle about "tyranny." American Airlines confirmed the woman is now banned from the airline pending further investigation.

a man wearing a suit and tie: Steve Dickson, administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), speaks at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Aviation Summit in Washington, D.C., March 5, 2020. © Bloomberg via Getty Images, FILE Steve Dickson, administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), speaks at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Aviation Summit in Washington, D.C., March 5, 2020.

"First strike, and you're out," Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, said. "We applaud FAA Administrator Dickson for taking this clear stand for our safety and security. This will help serve as a deterrent to unruly passengers who had been bucking the rules of aviation safety. We continue to work with our airlines, the FAA, the TSA and law enforcement to keep our skies safe."

The FAA's new policy will remain in effect through March 30. The agency said it has "initiated more than 1,300 enforcement actions against unruly passengers" within the last decade, "including recent cases for allegedly interfering with and assaulting flight attendants who instructed them to wear masks."

ABC News' Gio Benitez, Sam Sweeney and Amanda Maile contributed to this report.

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