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The Case for Putting Unruly Airline Passengers on a Federal No-Fly List

News Airports + Flying
by Nickolaus Hines Feb 10, 2022

It’s been a tough couple of years to work in the airline industry. From health concerns, to constantly changing travel regulations, to flight cancellations, it’s hard to think of a more precarious time to work for an airline. And that’s not even counting one of the biggest threats: the passengers themselves.

Masks are the biggest, but not the only, issue: 72 percent of unruly passenger reports to the Federal Aviation Administration (4,290 of 5,981) by December 31 were mask related, according to CNN, and 205 of 323 reports in 2022 as of February 1 were mask-related.

Now the CEO of Delta Air Lines, Ed Bastian, is asking the federal government to step in.

Bastian wrote a letter to attorney general Merrick Garland stating that people who disrupt flights and don’t follow crew instructions or mask orders belong on a government no-fly list.

“This action will help prevent future incidents and serve as a strong symbol of the consequences of not complying with crew member instructions on commercial aircraft,” the letter reads, according to the New York Times.

Individual airlines already have this power. The New York Times notes that Delta alone has put about 1,900 people on its no-fly list for mask violations, and has referred more than 900 people to the TSA for civil penalties that can be as high as $1,000 for first-time mask offenders and up to $3,000 for second-time offenders. A federal no-fly list would in this case keep people from doing the same on one airline after being banned from another.

It’s not just businesses trying to stem the concerning trend: the Federal Aviation Administration opened about 1,100 unruly passenger investigations — more than all of 2014 through 2020 combined — and that doesn’t include anything reported to the TSA. Airline alcohol bans haven’t done anything to mitigate the situation.

Anyone who has flown over the past couple of months likely has their own stories about other passengers — and there’s a good chance that many have seen first-hand why Bastian felt the need to send this letter. On a recent international flight to Mexico, I saw a middle-aged American who appeared intoxicated loudly complaining about how the airline was determined to stop their fun by banning alcohol on-board, and the passenger threatened to start opening the mini bottles in their carry on. Flight attendants repeatedly, and with the most patience I’ve personally ever witnessed on a plane, told the passenger to put their mask back on every time it slipped off during a slurred rant.

On another flight from Denver to New York City, I saw a passenger push another passenger out of the aisle while deplaning following an argument about keeping masks over their nose.

These are relatively minor issues, but point to the broader normalization of aggressive behavior while people are all locked in a big metal tube. And if we can’t respect basic decency for people around us, how can we expect people to do the things that are clearly out of line?

Bastian’s letter follows a growing acknowledgment by the federal government that something more needs to be done. In 2020, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said a federal no-fly list has merit, and Garland told US attorneys that prosecuting crimes that threatened commercial flight safety is a priority. More recently, Buttigieg told CNN on February 7 that the government needs “to take a look at” policy recommendations for a federal no-fly list.

That doesn’t mean the no-fly list is an easy solution. Barry Steinhardt, the director of the technology and liberty program at the American Civil Liberties Union, put out a statement about profiling that resulted from the no-fly list after the proposed Computer Assisted Passenger Pre-Screening System.

Steinhardt wrote in a statement that “innocent, law-abiding Americans have found themselves subject to relentless hassles, interrogation and searches every time they try to travel by air. They may share similar names with those who have been placed on suspect lists, or be the victims of random error, malicious discrimination, or mysterious bureaucratic quirks.”

The federal no-fly list was started in December 2001 in response to the terror attacks on 9/11. It included people who aren’t allowed to fly in the country, as well as listed people who would more thorough security searches.

Buttigieg also told CNN that “there are enormous implications in terms of civil liberties, in terms of how you administer something like that. I mean even when it was over terrorism, it was not a simple thing to set up.”

It’s still unclear whether anything will come from the letter. Department of Justice spokesperson Joshua Stueve later gave a statement to CNN: “The Department of Justice is continuing to prioritize the investigations and prosecutions of those who engage in criminal behavior that threatens the safety of passengers, flight crews, and flight attendants. We are fully committed to holding accountable those who violate federal law. We will be referring Delta’s letter to appropriate departments.”

But when there are passengers punching flight attendants so hard they chip their teeth, there’s not really another option. We need a no-fly list that can keep the people who get us from point A to point B just as safe as they keep us.

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