The agency that operates the New York City area's three major airports wants passengers who don't turn off their cellphones or tablets before takeoff to pay up or go to court.
The executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey said Monday the agency is considering levying fines that could reach tens of thousands of dollars for behavior that causes flight delays.
"We think that with the economic costs of delays and with the passenger inconvenience and the effect on our airports' ability to serve 100 million passengers a year, it's the right thing to do," Pat Foye said.
The issue of electronic devices on planes received national publicity in December when Alec Baldwin was kicked off a New York-bound flight in Los Angeles for refusing to turn off his cellphone. Baldwin, who stars on NBC's "30 Rock," later issued an apology to fellow American Airlines passengers who were delayed but mocked a flight attendant on Twitter.
The use of electronic devices on planes generally is prohibited during takeoffs and landings, and passengers are warned by public announcements. The Port Authority initiative is believed to be the only one of its kind being contemplated at a domestic airport, but it's unclear whether the agency would have the power to implement it. News of the Port Authority's plans was first reported in the New York Post.
According to Foye, Port Authority police last year responded to about 400 calls involving passengers who refused to turn off their electronic devices at John F. Kennedy International, LaGuardia and Newark Liberty International airports. Foye said he believes for every one of those episodes there may have been dozens more in which police weren't called but delays may have ensued.
New York has some of the most crowded airspace in the country, and delays at any of its three major airports can cause havoc around the globe, such as in January 2009 when a security breach closed a terminal for six hours. Flight delays caused by storms in New York often have a ripple effect across the rest of the country.
Last week, the Federal Aviation Administration announced it is looking at ways to test devices to see if they are safe for passengers to use during critical phases of flights such as takeoffs and landings.
Foye said the fines would be targeted primarily at repeat offenders and egregious behavior that causes lengthy delays. He didn't give specifics on how the fines would be calculated but said the airlines would receive some reimbursement.
"The Port Authority legal department has been looking at options we have for bringing civil litigation, and we're prepared to bring that," he said. "We wanted to put people on notice that that is a potential remedy."
Attorney David Stempfler, head of the Air Travelers Association advocacy group, said there could be jurisdictional issues because, while the Port Authority polices the airports, federal agencies such as the FBI and the Federal Aviation Administration govern what takes place inside airplanes.
"It seems like the injured party here is the airline, not the Port Authority," he said. "It's the airline that needs to be taking action against the passengers for doing this. The concept needs to be fleshed out more."
United Airlines, Newark Liberty airport's largest tenant, didn't immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.
American Airlines said shortly after Baldwin was removed from the plane in Los Angeles that FAA regulations require that cellphones and other electronic devices be turned off as soon as its airliners' doors have been closed. It said Baldwin refused to comply, stood up when the fasten seat belt light was on and took his phone into the lavatory, slamming the door so hard the cockpit crew heard it and became alarmed.
Baldwin spokesman Matthew Hiltzik said that it was the flight attendant who acted inappropriately and that Baldwin was singled out while other people on the plane were violating the regulation.
Air traveler Jamie Williams, a resident of Portland, Maine, who was typing on his laptop Monday at a Newark Liberty airport coffee shop, said he favored the Port Authority's plan even though he hadn't experienced a delay due to an unruly passenger.
"I would have no problem with that," he said. "I think it's a good idea."