By David Shepardson and Doina Chiacu
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The rate of unruly airline passenger incidents has dropped sharply since regulators moved to impose fines in January but remains twice as high as last year, the Federal Aviation Administration said on Thursday.
The incidents were occurring six times per 10,000 flights as of last week - a 50% drop from early 2021 when the agency moved to a "zero-tolerance policy" against fliers lashing out, the U.S. aviation regulator said in a statement.
"The trend of unruly passenger incidents is moving in the right direction. But we need the progress to continue. This remains a serious safety threat, and one incident is one too many," FAA Administrator Steve Dickson said in a statement.
Some fliers have balked at a federal face-mask mandate imposed amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which has roiled the country since early 2020. Hundreds have been banned from some airlines for refusing to comply and some face $9,000 federal civil fines for defying mask requirements.
Later on Thursday, a House Transportation subcommittee is scheduled to hold a hearing with industry representatives on the surge in "air rage" and its impact on airlines, airports and their workers, including flight attendants.
Individuals staffing flights have born the brunt of many incidents, with many facing physical assault.
"Even as we continue to fight a pandemic, the amount of disruption and violent behavior on planes has reached epidemic proportions," U.S. Representative Peter DeFazio, who chairs the House Transportation Committee, said in a statement.
DeFazio recognized the FAA's fines but said the agency's safety inspectors "who process these cases can't continue at the current rate without some relief" and urged more cooperation between federal and state authorities as well as with the industry. He urged airports to do more to prevent passengers from bringing "to go" alcoholic drinks onboard airplanes.
As of Sept. 21, there have been 4,385 reported unruly passenger incidents since Jan. 1, including 3,199 mask-related ones, FAA data showed.
The agency has called on airlines to do more to address unruly passengers. Some Democratic U.S. lawmakers have also called on the U.S. Department of Justice to prosecute disruptive and violent air passengers.
Dickson imposed the stiffer policy after supporters of former U.S. President Donald Trump were disruptive on some flights around the time of the deadly Jan. 6 attack at the U.S. Capitol.
(Reporting by David Shepardson and Doina Chiacu; Editing by Mark Porter and Steve Orlofsky)