The Federal Aviation Administration is cracking down on what it calls a “disturbing increase” in threatening or violent behavior by airline passengers, putting in place a zero-tolerance policy against disruptive behavior through March. The move comes in response to last week’s attack on the Capitol and to the longer running problem of passengers who refuse to wear masks.
Under a new order signed Wednesday by 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 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.’s shift in policy comes 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 leading up to the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol and have continued since.
“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.”
On Thursday, a Black American Airlines flight attendant was subjected to “racial epithets” on a hotel shuttle in Washington, according to the union that represents the airline’s flight attendants. On Friday, Alaska Airlines barred 14 passengers from future flights, 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, too. In widely shared episodes, Trump supporters also heckled two Republican senators, Mitt Romney of Utah and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, as they traveled to and from Washington.
American Airlines on Wednesday said it was taking steps to ensure the safety of its crews and customers ahead of the presidential inauguration next week. Those include suspending alcohol on flights to and from Washington from Saturday through Thursday, moving crew members from hotels in downtown Washington to those closer to the airport, providing private transportation between the hotels and airports and increasing airport staffing. In travel advisories, Delta Air Lines discouraged customers from traveling to Washington for the inauguration, and said that it would temporarily ban firearms in all checked baggage on flights into the area.
In recent months, U.S. airlines have also prohibited hundreds of people from their flights for refusing the wear masks, and some have now added unruly Trump supporters to that group of barred customers. Airline passenger bans are independent from the federal no-fly list.
The lead agency for determining who is added to the list is the Terrorist Screening Center, which is part of the F.B.I. 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.
That list is a subset of a larger terrorism database that can also prevent people from getting visas to the United States or subject them to additional screening. Its purpose and procedures are not an obvious fit for handling rioters. 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 when Al Qaeda hijackers took over planes and turned them into missiles, killing themselves in the process.
Civil libertarians have long challenged the watch lists because the standards for being added to them are murky and people are generally not notified that they have been included, or told why. Foreigners abroad have little recourse, but in 2019, a federal judge in Oregon 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.