Can Saying the F-word on a Plane Land You in Jail?

We had an interesting encounter when flying US Airways from San-Diego to Philadelphia a couple of days ago. This was a red-eye overnight flight. A young woman with a little baby in a car seat boarded the plane and sat in a row in front of me. She had difficulty securing the car seat in the position, and the flight attendants refused to help her or even advise her on the matter. In the end it turned out she had the car seat backwards – well, they should have known that, shouldn’t they?

But something much more interesting happened later. She was complaining to a flight attendant about the air temperature from the vents, or something like that, and admittedly she became quite rude, but, you know, a regular upset-on-the-red-eye-flight-having-a-sleepless-night kind of rude, nothing more. When the flight attendant asked her to stop yelling, she told her things like “you are not my mother; go get someone else” and, eventually, “get your f-cking air out of my face!”. She also complained that the flight attendant “almost hit her” – I am not sure whether this was the case, I could not see.

In a moment, the flight attendant returned with a supervisor, who flatly stated that upon arrival to Philadelphia the woman would be arrested and put in jail, because what she did “is a crime”. Then they started to argue about who did what, the problem of the air was never recalled, and the woman ended up bursting into tears. Satisfied, the supervisor left, letting nearby passengers to comfort the woman.

Granted, cursing and yelling at people is not right, but if it were a crime, this whole country would be in jail. Note, that the woman did not make any specific threats towards the crew, the plane, or other passengers, she did not even call the flight attended names. She used the F-word as a standard expression of frustration without threatening anyone in particular.

This whole encounter made me think: can they really put you in jail for cursing on a plane? It appears that in theory they can. There is very little material on the matter, but as far as I understand, if the crew complains, you will be arrested at the airport, no questions asked. Most likely they will let you go and probably no even press charges, but they can ruin your trip for good.

The law about “interference with the flight crew” is very, very vague. The law applies to an individual who

“by assaulting or intimidating a flight crew member or flight attendant of the aircraft, interferes with the performance of the duties of the member or attendant or lessens the ability of the member or attendant to perform those duties”

And it is no joke – it carries up to 20 years in prison punishment. Also, this is not an intent crime – it does not matter if you wanted to cause trouble. Now, what exactly is “lessen the ability to perform the duties”? If I ask loudly for a glass of water, would it lessen the ability of a flight attendant to perform her duty? Of course it would – while she gives me a glass of water she could be doing other things instead. Of course, this example is ridiculous, but in theory pretty much anything you do on the plain can be made subject to this law.

Now, note that intimidating a passenger is somehow not a crime. Was the supervisor a prosecutor? A judge? A jury maybe? Who gave her the right to decide what is a crime and what is not? If she said something like “if you continue to curse, we will have to contact authorities and you will be arrested”, this would still be intimidation, but at least it would be technically correct. Declaring uttering the f-word a crime was clearly overstepping her authority.

Of course, getting real jail time for loudly asking for a “f-cking glass of water” is unlikely, but apparently you have a non-zero chance to get arrested for that. Are we turning into police state? Flying becomes more and more annoying. By the way, did you know that in Israel, which was never shy on security measures, they don’t make everyone to take off their shoes during airport security check?

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