Ask Alec Baldwin: Ignore flight attendants at your peril

— -- Ignoring directions from flight attendants, as actor Alec Baldwin did while awaiting takeoff last week, can be no laughing matter.

Airlines can pursue civil fines against unruly passengers through the Federal Aviation Administration or, in the most egregious cases, even criminal charges.

"I think the lesson here is you've got to listen to the flight attendants," says Michael Krzak, a partner who practices aviation law at Clifford Law Offices in Chicago.

Baldwin was removed from an American Airlines flight Tuesday in Los Angeles after a confrontation with flight attendants over playing a cellphone game after being told to shut it down.

The incident became a social media sensation after the star of NBC's 30 Rock tweeted about the incident and American took to Facebook to respond, saying "an extremely vocal customer" was removed after being "extremely rude to the crew, calling them inappropriate names and using offensive language."

And Lonny Glover, the safety and security director for the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, a union representing American crew members, told New York's Daily News that Baldwin should be fined, put on the airline's no-fly list and have his TV show removed from in-flight entertainment unless he apologized.

There's no indication Baldwin will face further punishment. The FAA wouldn't comment. But Tim Smith, an American spokesman, says the airline hasn't pursued any more action.

Others passengers have faced more. The FAA fines more than a hundred passengers each year for disobeying crew members after complaints are filed. Regulations state that "no person may assault, threaten, intimidate, or interfere with a crew member in the performance of the crew member's duties."

Common violations include assaulting a crew member or becoming drunk and belligerent. The potential fine for each violation is up to $25,000. Each incident can result in multiple violations.

In the worst cases, an airline can ask a federal prosecutor to pursue criminal charges. The criminal code prohibits "assaulting or intimidating a flight crew member" under penalty of fines and up to 20 years in prison. If a "dangerous weapon" is used, a life sentence is possible.

"That is typically not done unless there are pretty extreme circumstances, things like weapons or actual assaults," Krzak says.