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The F.A.A. Cracks Down on Unruly Airline Passengers Ahead of Inauguration


Airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration are stepping up efforts to address violence and disruption on flights and at airports ahead of next week’s presidential inauguration, citing a rise of threatening and aggressive behavior by some airline passengers before and since last week’s attack on the Capitol.

Under a Wednesday order from its chief, Steve Dickson, the F.A.A. plans to take legal action against passengers who assault, threaten, intimidate or interfere with airline crew members, which could include fines of up to $35,000 and referral for criminal prosecution. The agency previously had the authority to impose fines and refer people for prosecution but tended to issue warnings before going that far. Now, it will no longer issue warnings as a first step.

“Flying is the safest mode of transportation, and I signed this order to keep it that way,” Mr. Dickson said in a statement.

Some lawmakers have called on the Trump administration to go even further. Senator Chuck Schumer, the New York Democrat who will soon be the Senate majority leader, said on Tuesday that the names of people who had stormed the Capitol should be added to the federal “no-fly list,” a tool the federal government uses to keep terrorism suspects out of American airspace.

The F.A.A. shifted its policy after airlines, flight attendant unions and passengers reported disruptive and threatening behavior from supporters of President Trump on flights to and from Washington and in airports. Reports of such behavior began on flights into Washington in the days before the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol by a mob of pro-Trump extremists.

“We applaud F.A.A. Administrator Dickson for taking this clear stand for our safety and security,” said Sara Nelson, the head of the Association of Flight Attendants, which represents nearly 50,000 flight attendants at several airlines, including United Airlines. “This will help serve as a deterrent to unruly passengers who had been bucking the rules of aviation safety.”

Last week, a Black flight attendant with American Airlines was subjected to “racial epithets” on a hotel shuttle in Washington, according to the union that represents the airline’s flight attendants. Last Friday, Alaska Airlines barred 14 passengers from future travel, describing their behavior on a flight from Washington to Seattle as “rowdy, argumentative” and harassing.

Several other airlines have also reported barring passengers from future flights in recent days. In widely shared episodes, Trump supporters heckled two Republican senators, Mitt Romney of Utah and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, as they traveled to and from Washington. Delta said it had barred some of those involved in harassing Mr. Romney.

American Airlines and United Airlines are moving crew members out of hotels in downtown Washington and increasing staffing at airports in the area. United, Delta Air Lines and Alaska Airlines will ban firearms on flights to the area, with some exceptions for active military and law enforcement personnel on United. Delta is discouraging customers from traveling to the area, while Alaska is limiting ticket sales on flights to and from Washington and requiring passengers on those flights to remain seated for an hour after takeoff and before landing.

In recent months, U.S. airlines have prohibited hundreds of people from flights for refusing to wear masks. Delta, for example, has barred more than 800 people, its chief executive, Ed Bastian, said on a call with financial analysts and reporters on Thursday. United said in a statement that it had barred about 615 people for refusing to comply with its mask policy, including about 60 last week.

Such bans are independent from the federal no-fly list. The lead agency for determining who is added to that list is the Terrorist Screening Center, which is part of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The F.A.A. has no authority over the list, though it and the airlines have said they work closely with local and federal law enforcement on security threats.

The no-fly list is a subset of a terrorism database that can also prevent people from getting visas to the United States. Although Americans suspected of involvement with a foreign terrorist organization have sometimes been placed on the no-fly list, it was built with the idea of reducing the risk of a very different threat: a repetition of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Civil libertarians have long challenged the watch lists because the standards for being added to them are murky and people are generally not notified or told why they were included. In 2019, a federal judge ruled that the procedures for reviewing whether it was appropriate to put someone’s name on the no-fly list were inadequate and violated Americans’ Fifth Amendment right to due process.

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