If an aircraft is in flight in the airspace above a US state, say Texas, does Texas state law, or potentially the laws of any other US states, apply to the passengers on board during that time, or is it solely US federal law that applies?

Does the answer depend on whether the flight originated in Texas, landed in Texas, or on which other states' (if any) airspace the flight transitioned through while en route?

Does the answer depend on the flight's duration, maximal altitude, or current altitude at the time the behavior in question was engaged in by a passenger?

Does the answer depend on the type of aircraft (e.g., plane, helicopter, hot air balloon etc)?

As a motivating example, consider a US state that bans medication abortion. If a pregnant woman in that state who seeks such an abortion boards an aircraft and the aircraft then takes off, the woman ingests the prohibited abortion medication, and the flight then lands a few minutes later, can the woman be prosecuted under the laws of the state?

Edit: a comment suggested a similarity between my question and another question involving international flights and which countries' jurisdictions apply to them. My question is about domestic US flights, in which case it seems reasonable to assume that only US law governs. The question is about which US law, that is, which of the different US jurisdictional layers (federal and state primarily) will apply in a given situation involving a US aircraft in flight. So, I don't think this question is a duplicate or answered by the other question. (I also tried to research the issue with google prior to asking the question, and found similar questions discussing the country level, but nothing that discusses different states within the US.)

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  • A lot of this is going to depend on the destination of the flight, any stops it makes and the flight path it takes. If it is a flight that ends up at the same place or in the same state the answer is going to be different then if it ends up in a different state or country. The state the plane is registered in might also factor in.
    – Joe W
    Jul 5, 2022 at 18:50
  • @Trish can you explain how you think the linked question applies to the issue I am asking about? If the answer is there I'm not seeing it. I am asking about domestic US flights and the local US (state, federal) jurisdictions that apply to them, not about the jurisdictions of multiple different countries. Jul 5, 2022 at 18:51
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    @JoeW I'd love to see an answer spelling out why this is so, with appropriate references. (And are planes "registered in a state"? I have the impression that registration of aircraft is handled by the FAA at a federal level, but I could be wrong.) Jul 5, 2022 at 18:53
  • I don't know, but those are all questions I would have though as I read your question I think it is very broad and needs to have more detail added.
    – Joe W
    Jul 5, 2022 at 18:58

2 Answers 2



From the moment an aircraft’s doors are closed for departure until the moment they are opened an aircraft is “in flight” and are covered by the special aviation jurisdiction of the United States and out of the jurisdiction of any particular state.

  • I suspect this is correct, but can you cite a source? Jul 6, 2022 at 4:43
  • @DavidSiegel found it, lost it. Just Google special aviation jurisdiction
    – Dale M
    Jul 6, 2022 at 4:51
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    Thank you. The special aviation jurisdiction law (49 U.S.C. 465) seems to concern only specific crimes such as air piracy. I don't see anything there about state law in general not applying on board an aircraft in flight. Moreover, this article by a criminal defense attorney states "While some states may have statutes that criminalize conduct relating to airplanes, almost all crimes committed aboard or against an airplane are prosecuted under federal law." Doesn't that contradict what you wrote? Jul 6, 2022 at 7:38

It depends :-).

First of all, as described in 49 U.S.C. 465, there is the Special aircraft jurisdiction of the United States. This only applies to certain crimes, such as air piracy or homicide (see §46506). These crimes will be prosecuted under Federal law.

If a crime does not fall under this jurisdiction, it will probably be prosecuted under the law of whatever state the aircraft was flying over at the time. For example, this is explicitly mentioned in Nevada law:

NRS 493.080  Jurisdiction over crimes and torts.  All crimes, torts and other wrongs committed by or against an operator or passenger while in flight over this state are governed by the laws of this state. [...]

Nevada revised statues, title 44, chapter 493

And in California law:

When a public offense is committed in this State, on board [...] or on an aircraft prosecuting its trip, the jurisdiction is in any competent court, through, on, or over the jurisdictional territory of which the vessel, train, car, motor vehicle, common carrier or aircraft passes in the course of its voyage or trip, or in the jurisdictional territory of which the voyage or trip terminates.

California Code, Penal Code - PEN § 783

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