Criminal offenses committed aboard an aircraft are subject to the jurisdiction of federal courts. While some states may have statutes that criminalize conduct relating to airplanes, almost all crimes committed aboard or against an airplane are prosecuted under federal law.
The federal statutes that govern criminal offenses on aircraft are found at 49 USC 465.
The law says that an incident takes place in the special aircraft jurisdiction of the US when it involves any aircraft in flight in the US. An aircraft is in flight in the US from the point when the doors are closed after boarding until the moment they are opened after landing. See 49 USC 46501.
In addition, conduct involving an aircraft is subject to US special aircraft jurisdiction where it involves any American carrier (such as United, Southwest, American Airlines, Northwest Airlines, Delta, etc.), or any US military aircraft, anywhere in the world. See id.
Any aircraft from a foreign carrier (such as Aeromexico, Virgin Atlantic, Air France, etc.) that either departs from, or is destined for, the US is subject to federal special aircraft jurisdiction. Id. Further, any aircraft that is hijacked and lands in the US with the hijacker aboard, regardless of the depature point or intended destination, is subject to the special aircraft jurisdiction of the US. Id.
The special aircraft jurisdiction of the US makes certain state crimes become federal offenses. For example, murder is usually prosecuted under state law, and every state’s law is different. Some states call for the death penalty while others have life in prison without parole, and others allow release after a long sentence. But a murder committed aboard an aircraft is a federal offense subject to penalties established by the federal sentencing guidelines.
Federal law establishes the following criminal penalties for conduct occurring on board or against an aircraft:
- Aircraft piracy, which is defined as violently taking over an aircraft in flight. This includes an attempt or conspiracy to commit the offense. 49 USC 46502(a).
- Aircraft piracy outside the special aircraft jurisdiction of the US. This offense is an extension of the aircraft piracy crime. It is defined as violently taking over an aircraft in flight, including an attempt or conspiracy to do so, where 1) an American is on board; 2) the offender is American; or 3) the offender is later found inside the US. 49 USC 4605(2)(b).
- Interfering with security screening personnel in the US. 49 USC 46503. An example of this offense would be assaulting an airport security screener.
- Interfering with a flight crew member or attendant. 49 USC 46504. This offense includes assault or intimidation, as well as an attempt or conspiracy to do the same.
- Possessing a loaded firearm, explosive, or incendiary device on board an aircraft. 49 USC 46505. The statute makes it illegal to not only possess, but also to place, cause to be placed, or attempt, anyone of these prohibited items on board an aircraft. The prosecution must prove the aircraft was traveling between states (interstate), within a state (intrastate), or in foreign air transportation.
- Threatening to commit any one of these offenses, or providing false information concerning any one of these offenses. 49 USC 46507.
These federal offenses have been used in the war on terror. The Department of Justice used Title 49, United States Code, Chapter 465, to prosecute Islamic terrorist Richard Reid, who boarded American Airlines Flight 63 from Paris to Miami on December 22, 2001 and attempted to detonate explosives in his shoe. Reid is known as the shoe bomber.
The US government also used this statute to prosecute Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. He is known as the Christmas bomber because on December 25, 2009, Abdulmutallab boarded Northwest Airlines Flight 253 in Amsterdam to Detroit. He attempted to detonate explosives that lined his underwear. Many people credit this incident with the onset of full body scans at airports.