With a troubling number of incidents involving unruly passenger behavior aboard US airlines and at airports, carriers have banned hundreds of passengers since the start of the pandemic. Delta Air Lines alone says it has put 1,600 passengers on its ‘no fly’ list, 600 of whom the carrier has referred to the Federal Aviation Administration.
Now the airline wants other airlines to share their lists well, in a bid to create a national database of banned travelers. “A list of banned customers doesn’t work as well if that customer can fly with another airline,” wrote Kristen Manion Taylor, Delta’s senior vice president of in-flight service, in a memo to flight attendants.
According to Taylor, the carrier is calling on “other airlines to share their ‘no fly’ list to further protect airline employees across the industry.”
So far this year, the agency says there have been 4,385 events involving unruly passengers, nearly three-quarters of them (73 percent) involving refusal to follow the federal face mask mandate. The altercations have resulted in cabin crews and other travelers being harassed, threatened, sexually assaulted and, in some cases, physically attacked.
In January, the FAA instituted a zero-tolerance policy toward such behavior in flight, including levying fines of up to $35,000 and possible prison time. The FAA has taken action in 162 of those cases, issuing more than $1 million in proposed fines.
In June, a coalition of industry stakeholders, led by Airlines for America and major aviation labor unions, sent a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland urging the Department of Justice to “ensure that egregious onboard conduct is fully and criminally prosecuted, sending a strong public message of deterrence, safety and security.”
In a letter last month, FAA Administrator Steve Dickson urged airport officials and local law enforcement around the country to put more teeth in enforcement of rules against passengers behaving badly by filing charges. “While the FAA has levied civil fines against unruly passengers, it has no authority to prosecute criminal cases,” Dickson noted.
According to a July poll taken by the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, 85 percent of those responding say they have dealt with unruly passengers in the first half of 2021. More than half (58 percent) had experienced at least five incidents this year and 17 percent reported experiencing a physical incident.
“The vitriol, verbal and physical abuse from a small group of passengers is completely out of control, and is putting other passengers and flight crew at risk,” said Sara Nelson, president of AFA-CWA in a statement. “This is not a ‘new normal’ we are willing to accept.”
Last week, the FAA met with aviation groups, including A4A and the Regional Airline Association, asking them to outline what steps the carriers will take to curb such incidents.
The idea of airlines sharing ‘no-fly’ lists of unruly passengers had previously been floated by the AFA-CWA, which represents some 50,000 cabin crew members across 17 carriers. However, exactly how such a database would be implemented, and by whom, is not yet clear.
Airlines have full discretion to ban passengers who violate their policies or federal regulations. But lists of passengers banned for their bad behavior by airlines are separate from the federal no-fly list, which is managed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Terrorist Screening Center.
For an individual to be placed on that list, the government must have information that the person “may pose a threat to civil aviation or national security,” by putting the aircraft or the US homeland or US facilities at risk.
The Delta memo coincided with a hearing by the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, entitled “Disruption in the Skies: The Surge in Air Rage and its Effects on Workers, Airlines, and Airports.”
At the hearing, Rep. Peter DeFazio, (D-Ore.) said, “Even as we continue to fight a pandemic, the amount of disruption and violent behavior on planes has reached epidemic proportions.”
DeFazio credited the zero tolerance policy implemented in January with helping to reduce incidents. Airlines reported about six incidents of disruptive passengers for every 10,000 flights last week, according to the FAA. That is about the same number of incidents as late June but about half the number reported in February and March.
Still that is more than twice the rate of 2.45 incidents per 10,000 flights reported during the last three months of 2020. “The rate of these incidents is still too high,” DeFazio said, noting over 200 have been reported in a two-week period in September alone.