Federal Crimes Blog

49 U.S. Code § 46506 - Crimes Aboard Aircraft in Flight

Posted by Ronald D. Hedding | Jul 31, 2023

Suppose a crime is committed aboard an aircraft in flight within United States territory. In that case, it will typically fall under the jurisdiction of the federal district courts.

The vast majority of crimes on an airplane are not related to terrorism. Sometimes, passengers argue, fight, and shout profanity-laced threats at each other. Flight attendants are threatened, screamed at, or physically assaulted at different times.

Airplane passengers can get charged with federal crimes when they disrupt a flight, which carries a $37,000 civil fine for each violation and felony charges that carry up to 20 years in prison. Most aircraft-related offenses will usually be prosecuted under a federal statute listed in 49 U.S. Code Chapter 465.

49 U.S.C. 46506 application of specific criminal laws to acts on aircraft says, ”An individual on an aircraft in the special aircraft jurisdiction of the United States who commits an act that would violate sections 113, 114, 661, 662, 1111, 1112, 1113, or 2111 or chapter 109A of title 18, shall be fined….”

An aircraft is considered “in flight” when the doors are closed after passengers have boarded until they are opened after landing within the borders or outside of the United States.  These rules apply to any airline carrier, such as American Airlines, United Airlines, Southwest Airlines, Delta Airlines, or military aircraft.

Aircraft from a foreign carrier, such as Air France that departs from or is destined for the United States is also under federal special aircraft jurisdiction, which makes certain state crimes a federal crime. Let's take a closer look below at what is considered a crime on board an aircraft and its possible consequences.

What Is Special Aircraft Jurisdiction?

Federal law has provisions for what is known as “special aircraft jurisdiction,” which allows the federal government to prosecute crimes occurring on “aircraft in flight” defined under 49 U.S. Code 46501(1), which means a plane is not only in flight when it's flying but also when the aircraft is on the ground, and the doors are closed.

49 U.S. Code § 46506 - Crimes Aboard Aircraft in Flight
If you commit a crime aboard an aircraft in flight, you could be charged with a federal offense.

Once the doors are open, the jurisdiction to prosecute crimes falls under state laws where the plane has landed.

The United States has jurisdiction over crimes committed onboard an aircraft in flight if they are a civil, military, or any other airliner defined under 49 U.S. Code 46501(2).  

Suppose a crime was committed aboard a foreign aircraft outside United States territory. In that case, the U.S. still has jurisdiction if the aircraft's next scheduled destination or last place of departure is in the United States and it lands here.

49 U.S.C. 46501(3) says, “An individual commits an offense, as defined in the Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Seizure of Aircraft when the individual on an aircraft in flight (A) by any form of intimidation, unlawfully seizes, exercises control of, or attempts to seize or exercise control of, the aircraft; or (B) is an accomplice of an individual….”

What is Considered Criminal Conduct on Board an Aircraft?

Numerous types of behavior would be considered criminal conduct while on board an airplane. Many are found within 49 U.S. Code Chapter 465 Special Aircraft Jurisdiction of the United States, including the following:

  • 49 U.S.C. 46501 – Definitions;
  • 49 U.S.C. 46502 – Aircraft piracy;
  • 49 U.S.C. 46503 – Interference with security screening personnel;
  • 49 U.S.C. 46504 – Interference with flight crew members and attendants: This statute covers assault, threats, or intimidating a flight crew member or attendant and interfering with the performance of their duties;
  • 49 U.S.C. 46505 – Carrying a weapon or explosive on an aircraft;
  • 49 U.S.C. 46506 – Application of specific criminal laws to acts on aircraft;
  • 49 U.S.C. 46507 – False information and threats;
  • 18 U.S.C. 35 – Conveyance of false information or threats (bomb hoax);

Aircraft Piracy

49 U.S.C. 46502 aircraft piracy (hijacking) is violently seizing or exercising control over an aircraft in flight, including an attempt, conspiracy, and when it occurs outside the United States.  

Interference with Flight Crew Members

49 U.S.C. 46504 Interference with flight crew members and attendants
It's a federal offense to interfere with flight crew members or attendants on an aircraft.

49 U.S.C. 46504 makes it a crime to interfere with a flight crew member or attendant, including assault, intimidation, attempt, or conspiracy. The FAA has pledged a “zero tolerance” policy.

Federal prosecutors use this statute when a passenger and crew member get into a heated argument, such as when a passenger becomes intoxicated in flight and verbally aggressive.

Possession of a Firearm or Explosive

49 U.S.C. 46505 is the statute that makes it a crime to possess or place a loaded firearm, explosive, or incendiary device onboard an aircraft. Notably, most cases involve someone packing a weapon and ammunition inside their baggage and forgetting it was there.

Threats to Commit a Crime 

49 U.S.C. 46507 makes it a crime to threaten to commit a crime or provide false information aboard a plane. In some cases, they are bad jokes, and there is no actual intent to commit a crime, but there is no tolerance by crewmembers or other passengers for anybody making threats on a plane.

Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)

The FAA has a zero-tolerance stance on disruptive behavior by passengers and will refer cases to the Federal Bureau of Investigation for a review if appropriate.

Suppose you are a passenger and were involved in some type of interference with a flight crew. In that case, the fines imposed by the FAA are $9K to $32K per incident. Some common examples where passengers have been fined or prosecuted include the following:

  • Assaulting other family members in an argument;
  • Pushing or spitting on other passengers;
  • Screaming at other passengers or crew members;
  • Yelling profanities while intoxicated;
  • Throwing trash at flight crew members;
  • Refusal to remain seated during takeoff or landing;
  • Attempting to enter the cockpit.

What are the Penalties and Defenses?

The federal sentencing guidelines impose mandatory minimum sentences for many of the offenses on board an aircraft. Anyone convicted should expect to face significant fines and possible prison time, such as the following:

  • Interference with crew members includes a maximum of 20 years, but the penalties will increase if a dangerous weapon is used;
  • A piracy conviction includes a maximum of 20 years in federal prison up to and life imprisonment in cases of hijacking; the death penalty could even be possible;
  • Threats or false information includes a maximum sentence of five years;
  • Possessing or placing a weapon or explosive on a plane carries a sentence of 10 to 20 years in prison.

Suppose you are under investigation or indicted for an offense committed on an aircraft. In that case, you will need an experienced federal criminal defense lawyer to have the best chance of a favorable outcome.

Perhaps we can negotiate with the federal prosecutor or FAA for a favorable deal to resolve the case. We serve people throughout the United States on federal criminal issues. The Hedding Law Firm has offices in Los Angeles, CA.

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Ronald D. Hedding

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