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FAA warns of jail time, fines as airports and airlines prep for unruly passengers ahead of the inauguration

A plane takes off from New York's LaGuardia Airport in December.
A plane takes off from New York's LaGuardia Airport in December. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
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As airlines and airports gird for more disruption when supporters of President Trump return to Washington for protests ahead of the inauguration, the head of the Federal Aviation Administration issued a warning to air travelers: Causing a safety risk could mean a jail term or a $35,000 fine.

“As a former airline captain, I can attest from firsthand experience that the cabin crew’s primary responsibility is to ensure the safety of all passengers,” FAA Administrator Steve Dickson said in a statement. “I expect all passengers to follow crew member instructions, which are in place for their safety and the safety of flight.”

The warning followed several viral videos, including those showing Sens. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) being heckled at airports last week, and others showing rowdy supporters of Trump aboard airliners. A major flight attendants union said every airline flying out of the Washington region had experienced incidents in recent days.

The chairman of the House Transportation Committee and the head of its aviation subcommittee wrote Monday to Dickson asking him to take additional steps. The lawmakers called on him to convene airline, airport and labor leaders to develop a way to identify anyone involved in last week’s violence who might try to travel to Washington for the inauguration.

Sen. Lindsey Graham labeled a ‘traitor’ by pro-Trump hecklers at airport

Reps. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.) and Rick Larsen (D-Wash.) said the FAA should aim “ (1) to prevent civil unrest from jeopardizing aviation safety and leading to injury or worse during flight, and (2) to limit the chance that the Nation’s commercial airline system could be used as a means of mass transportation to Washington, D.C., for further violence.”

More protests are expected in Washington beginning Sunday. D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) urged people to stay away from the capital region because of last week’s violence and the coronavirus pandemic. As many as 15,000 National Guard troops could be deployed to help maintain order.

This week, major airlines said they are continuing to work with law enforcement agencies after stepping up security following violence at the Capitol.

Airport officials said local and federal law enforcement officials will be highly visible. And airlines, including American, which has a large presence at Reagan National Airport, are adding staffing at key hubs to manage possible incidents.

“Passengers should expect to see a heightened law enforcement presence from now through the inauguration,” said Christina Saull, a spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which manages Reagan National and Dulles International airports.

The Transportation Security Administration said it is on “high alert” with extra security at airports in the Washington region.

In a bulletin for its 50,000 members over the weekend, the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA called the unruly groups of passengers “a new kind of threat in the air.”

Flight crews sometimes call on other passengers to help them manage people who are disruptive, but now face the challenge of having to deal with people forming airborne mobs. The union reminded flight attendants that the best solution is to keep potential troublemakers off planes.

“If someone is acting out in an airport, shouting obscenities, and harassing other passengers — they are likely identified as a flight risk and should not get on a flight at least until demonstrating otherwise,” the union wrote. “That has been the practice for years, especially since 9/11.”

Airlines, airports in D.C. area tighten security after Capitol riot as union cites ‘mob mentality’ among passengers

Sara Nelson, the union’s president, previously called for rioters involved in the storming of the Capitol to be banned from flying, an idea also backed by Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.

On Monday, Nelson said she couldn’t discuss specific security measures but “federal agencies and the airlines are taking this seriously.”

Short of action by the federal government, airlines have wide latitude to ban problem passengers.

Last week, Alaska Airlines announced it banned 14 passengers who were on a flight from Dulles International to Seattle-Tacoma International airports the day after the Capitol riot. The passengers were “non-mask compliant, rowdy, argumentative” and harassed crew members, the airline said.

“We apologize to our other guests who were made uncomfortable on the flight,” the airline said in a statement. “We will not tolerate any disturbance on board our aircraft or at any of the airports we serve.”

The new security challenge often comes on top of — and often hand in hand with — flight attendants’ daily battles to ensure that passengers wear masks to limit the spread of the coronavirus. Before the latest round of disruptions, cabin crews were left to enforce airline policies with little backup from the federal government.

Over the weekend, federal air marshals intervened in the case of a woman who began yelling at flight attendants and other passengers after being asked to wear her mask on an American Airlines flight from Charlotte to National Airport, the airline said. Videos of the incident were shared widely online.

The woman has been banned from the airline while the incident is investigated, but American declined to say how many people it had added to its list of banned passengers in the past week.

Sneezed on, cussed at, ignored: Airline workers battle mask resistance with scant government backup

To date, Alaska has banned 302 passengers who have violated the airline’s mandatory mask policy, which went into effect in August. United Airlines, which has banned more than 600, said in the past week alone it barred an additional 60 people.

Dickson’s statement indicates the FAA is prepared to take a tough stance against passengers who violate rules. Historically, the agency’s powers to take action against disruptive passengers have been rarely used, with it initiating about 1,300 cases in the past decade. The agency declined to say how many investigations it has begun in recent days.

An FAA database logs cases but does not give details about incidents. At least two in 2020 involved passengers who allegedly assaulted flight attendants and also refused to wear masks. In one case, the FAA proposed a $15,000 civil penalty; in the other, the agency proposed a $7,500 civil penalty.