Passenger's Challenge to FAA's Authority Rejected Because Interference Rule Is Reasonably Related to Flight Safety

In November 2009, Brian Wallaesa ("Wallaesa"), a passenger on a Southwest Airlines flight from Baltimore to Las Vegas, struck up a pre-boarding conversation with a female passenger and then took a seat next to her once on the plane. He "fast became an annoyance", prompting the female passenger to exchange seats with another passenger across the aisle and to alert a flight attendant. Against the flight attendant's instructions, Wallaesa repeatedly left his seat to talk to the female passenger, only to be intercepted by the flight attendant, who eventually seated him in a different row. About an hour before landing in Las Vegas, the captain anticipated turbulence, turned on the fasten seatbelt sign and instructed the flight attendants to take their seats. Wallaesa stood up and walked to the front of the aircraft in another attempt to speak to the female passenger, causing the flight attendants to get up from their seats, intercept him and tell him to sit down. After refusing multiple requests to return to his seat, the crew enlisted the help of an FBI agent on board, who eventually handcuffed and subdued Wallaesa. Law enforcement officials met the plane at the gate.

The Federal Aviation Administration ("FAA") brought civil penalty proceedings against Wallaesa for violating federal regulations by (i) interfering with crewmember duties ("Interference Rule"), (ii) failing to fasten a seatbelt while the fasten seatbelt sign was illuminated, and (iii) failing to follow crewmember instructions to comply with the fasten-seatbelt instruction ("Seatbelt Rules"). The FAA sought a $5,500 penalty. At a hearing, Wallaesa argued that a medical emergency (possibly caused by medication for anxiety or depression) caused his behavior. The Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) rejected this defense and imposed a $3,300 penalty for violating the Interference Rule (accepting the FAA's contention that the other violations did not warrant a penalty). After the ALJ's findings were affirmed by the FAA Administrator, Wallaesa filed a petition for review to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

Wallaesa challenged the FAA Administrator's determination on several grounds, one being that the FAA lacked statutory authority under 49 U.S.C. § 44701(a)(5) to prohibit passengers from non-violently interfering with crewmember duties or to enforce that prohibition through civil penalties. In Bargmann v. Helms, 715 F.2d 638 (D.C. Cir. 1983), the Court interpreted section 44701(a)(5) to authorize the FAA to promulgate regulations "reasonably related to safety in flight." Applying that standard, the Court determined that "passenger interference bears a nexus to flight safety" in that "[d]isruptive behavior sows distraction and chaos in an environment where law and order is paramount, potentially preventing the crew from executing emergency procedures or reaching passengers in need." The Court concluded that the Interference Rule satisfies the "minimum nexus" to safety in flight required by Bargmann and rejected Wallaesa's statutory authority argument. The Court also rejected Wallaesa's remaining arguments and denied his petition for review. Wallaesa v. Fed. Aviation Admin., 2016 WL 3212995 (D.C. Cir. June 10, 2016).