The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Grandstanding Republican senators try to protect unruly passengers

A flight attendant walks on board a Delta Air Lines plane at Raleigh-Durham International Airport in Morrisville, N.C., on Jan 20. (Al Drago/Bloomberg News)
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The federal government does not maintain an official “no-brainer list” of policies. If it did, there’s a good chance many Americans would applaud if one were a rule barring violent, unruly and disruptive airline passengers from the skies.

Applause has been exactly the reaction on some planes when aggressive passengers were removed following moments of onboard mayhem, often related to mask mandates. And when an NBC affiliate in Republican-leaning Kern County, Calif., asked last fall, “Should there be a no-fly list for passengers who disrupt flights?,” the results of an admittedly unscientific text-in poll were clear. Yes: 93 percent. No: 7 percent.

Nonetheless, some Republicans in Washington are grandstanding, rejecting no-nonsense measures to keep passengers and crews safe on airlines. In a recent letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland, eight GOP senators opposed establishing a national no-fly list for unruly passengers — even ones so violent and dangerous that they are convicted of committing a federal offense in the skies.

The eight Republicans who signed the letter are Sens. Cynthia M. Lummis (Wyo.), Mike Lee (Utah), James Lankford (Okla.), Marco Rubio (Fla.), Kevin Cramer (N.D.), Ted Cruz (Tex.), John Hoeven (N.D.) and Rick Scott (Fla.). They constitute what must be one of the more unusual groupings on Capitol Hill: Call it the Aviation Threat Forgiveness Caucus.

The senators wrote in response to a proposal from the chief executive of Delta Air Lines, Ed Bastian, who suggested a no-fly list be established by the federal government. In his view, and in that of the main union representing flight attendants, a list barring even the relatively small number of passengers convicted of unruly onboard conduct would be useful to combat an explosion over the past year of such incidents, most of them related to mask-wearing.

The Post's View: Why the foot-dragging on a no-fly list?

The senators’ timing was unfortunate. Their letter was released Feb. 14, the very day reports started circulating that a Delta passenger had tried to wrench open an emergency door while a plane was in flight from Salt Lake City to Portland, Ore., according to the Justice Department. The passenger now faces federal charges; if convicted, he would be a strong candidate for a no-fly list if one is created.

The senators’ tortured logic is that a no-fly list for unruly passengers opposed to onboard mask mandates “would seemingly equate them to terrorists who seek to actively take the lives of Americans and perpetrate attacks on the homeland,” as they wrote in their letter. The key word there is “seemingly,” which the senators stretch beyond its breaking point.

If the government moves forward with a no-fly list, it should take reasonable steps to calibrate its impact, including by ensuring that bans on individuals are temporary, for a duration linked to the offense’s severity, and by establishing a process by which sanctioned individuals can appeal.

But most people are clear on the difference between a terrorist and a miscreant who assaults a flight attendant. And most are equally certain that both pose a threat and should be banned from the skies.

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