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Crime Aboard Aircraft Federal Defense Lawyers

By Spodek Law Group | February 13, 2023
(Last Updated On: July 28, 2023)

Last Updated on: 28th July 2023, 07:22 pm

Understanding Offenses, Jurisdiction, and Penalties for Crimes Committed on Board Flights

When it comes to criminal offenses committed on board an aircraft, the jurisdiction typically falls under federal courts, and almost all offenses related to air travel are prosecuted under federal statutes within the 49 U.S. Code Chapter 465.

The Nature of Crimes Committed on Board Aircraft

It’s a common misconception that crimes on an airplane are limited to terrorist activity, but the truth is that most offenses do not involve terrorism at all. According to federal law, an incident is considered to have taken place within the aircraft’s jurisdiction when the aircraft is in flight within the United States. An aircraft is considered “in-flight” once the doors have been closed after boarding until they are opened after landing.

If you’re facing criminal charges for an offense committed on board an aircraft, it’s essential to note that the consequences could be severe, and in many cases, more serious than if the same crime were committed on the ground. Criminal offenses in the air are usually prosecuted in federal court and can carry substantial fines and lengthy prison sentences. In the case of hijacking, the death penalty could even be on the table.

Special Aircraft Jurisdiction of the United States

The United States holds jurisdiction over 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 United States. Furthermore, when crimes are committed aboard a foreign aircraft outside the U.S., the U.S. holds jurisdiction provided that the aircraft has its next scheduled destination or last place of departure in the United States, or if the aircraft lands in the United States with the individual still on board. Additionally, the U.S. holds jurisdiction over crimes committed on any other aircraft leased without a crew to a lessee that permanently resides or has a principal place of business in the U.S.

Defining “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.” The aircraft is no longer considered to be in flight once a door has been opened to allow passengers to exit the aircraft. However, if the aircraft makes a forced landing, it is still considered to be in flight until the proper authorities take responsibility for the aircraft.

Types of Crimes on Board Aircraft

At Spodek Law Group, our experienced federal criminal defense lawyers defend clients who have been accused of various crimes committed on board an aircraft, 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)

It’s important to note that interfering with airport security screening personnel before a flight is also a related crime, defined under Title 49 U.S. Code 46503. Violence at international airports is defined under Title 18 U.S. Code 37.

A Note About “Interference”

In recent times, 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). This statute covers assaulting, threatening, or intimidating a flight crew member or attendant, thereby interfering with 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, also known as “hijacking,” is defined as seizing or exercising control over an aircraft in flight, including an attempt or conspiracy to commit the offense. If the hijacking leads to death, the death penalty is a possible consequence.

Aircraft piracy outside of United States special aircraft jurisdiction is simply 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. Most cases, however, involve passengers 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, including assault or intimidation, and 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 during the flight and become 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 for anyone who makes threats on an aircraft in flight. A sarcastic comment could be misinterpreted as a threat to commit a crime, and you could find yourself in trouble quickly.

Fines and Sentences for Crimes Committed on Board an Aircraft

According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), passengers on domestic flights have been fined thousands of dollars ($9,000 to $32,000 per incident) this year for interfering with flight crews. The FAA, which has taken a zero-tolerance stance on disruptive behavior, has begun referring cases to the Federal Bureau of Investigation for criminal review.

In addition to fines, a defendant convicted of a crime on board an aircraft may face a long prison term, which is typically more severe than state-level crimes. For instance, piracy convictions include 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. Interfering with crew members or attendants also carries a maximum of 20 years in prison if convicted, but there is no maximum if a dangerous weapon was used. Possessing or placing a weapon or explosive on a plane 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 convictions carry a maximum sentence of five years.

If you are under investigation or have already been indicted for a crime committed on an aircraft, you need to contact a skilled legal team to give you the best chance of a favorable outcome. At Spodek Law Group, our attorneys, led by Todd Spodek, have extensive experience in federal criminal defense and can help you understand your options and develop a strong defense strategy. Our law firm has helped clients achieve favorable outcomes in high-stakes criminal cases, including those related to crimes committed on board an aircraft.

Contact Spodek Law Group today for a consultation with a knowledgeable and experienced attorney. We’ll work tirelessly to defend your rights and help you achieve the best possible outcome for your case.

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