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Can Airlines Stop Mentally Ill Passengers From Violent Acts?

Francisco Torres was arrested this month for attacking a flight attendant and attempting to open the plane’s emergency door on a cross-country United flight from Los Angeles to Boston. Confrontations on flights have skyrocketed since the pandemic started, with some altercations captured and replayed endlessly on social media, the Associated Press reports. In a video taken by a fellow passenger, Torres loudly threatens to kill people and promises a bloodbath before charging the front of the plane, where a group of passengers tackled him to the ground to restrain him. He remains behind bars pending a mental health evaluation, with a judge ruling he “may presently be suffering from a mental disease or defect rendering him mentally incompetent.” Torres objected to the evaluation through his federal public defender, Joshua Hanye. The flight attack was part of a decadeslong pattern of Torres demonstrating signs of a mental illness. He spent time in mental health facilities, according to lawsuits he filed in 2021 and 2022 against two hospitals in Massachusetts. Torres argued in one case that he was misdiagnosed with a mental illness and in the other that he was discriminated against for being vegan.

His case history demonstrates the challenges facing airlines and federal regulators when handling passengers like Torres. Experts say data shows those with mental illnesses are more often the victims of crimes than those responsible for committing violent acts. Despite repeated run-ins with police, authorities said that Torres rarely acted violently. There were no signs of trouble when he boarded the cross-county flight last month, a passenger said, or during the first five hours in the air. “He is really a nonviolent offender,” said Leominster Police Chief Aaron Kennedy, who is familiar with Torres from previous run-ins. Even if past incidents raised red flags, experts said there isn’t much that airlines can or should be doing. The FBI maintains a no-fly list for people suspected of terrorism, to which special agents and other approved government employees can submit names for consideration. People with mental illnesses are not prohibited from getting on a plane, according to Jeffrey Price, an aviation-security expert at the Metropolitan State University of Denver. Federal law gives U.S. citizens “a public right of transit through the navigable airspace,” he said. Last year legislation backed by airlines and their labor unions was introduced in Congress to create a new no-fly list including people who were charged or fined for interfering with airline crews.


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