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Opinion Why we need a national no-fly list

Passengers on an American Airlines flight from Los Angeles to D.C. look at a person being restrained at the end of the aisle, as the person turned unruly after the flight took off, in this image obtained from a social media video. (Mouaz Moustafa via Reuters)
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Ed Bastian is chief executive of Delta Air Lines.

As the nation transitions to a “new normal” of managing the virus and as the airline industry gears up to accommodate the influx of passengers, it’s critical that we have all the tools available to mitigate in-flight misconduct.

That is why I have proposed that any person convicted of a crime because of an onboard disruption be added to a national, comprehensive “no-fly” list of unruly passengers.

Like other airlines, Delta maintains its own no-fly list for anyone who disrupts onboard safety or refuses to comply with crew instructions. But unfortunately, we’ve seen cases in which unruly passengers have simply switched airlines and continued to fly even after endangering flight safety. While each airline can take initiative and do its part, only a comprehensive list overseen by the federal government can close the loopholes and prevent disrupters from flying.

You’ve likely seen the videos that tell the story — they usually feature an airline passenger disrupting a flight; disregarding flight attendants, pilots and airport agents; and sometimes verbally and even physically assaulting crew members or other passengers.

While these cases are rare, representing a tiny fraction of overall flights, there’s no question that they have increased over the past two years. On Delta, the rate of incidents with unruly passengers has risen nearly 100 percent since 2019. These events can result in injuries, flight diversions, lengthy delays, and, for the perpetrators, arrest and prosecution.

For airline employees, who are among our nation’s most essential workers, disruptive passengers are contributing to a more stressful workplace in an environment already made difficult by the pandemic. While the most disturbing images dominate the headlines, our people deal with a range of conflicts every day on our planes and at the airport that don’t get captured on video. These conflicts are complicated and stressful nonetheless. It’s thanks to these employees’ professionalism and training that most of these incidents never go viral and are resolved before becoming violent; but they continue to be a daily, unwelcome possibility that makes the employees’ jobs more difficult.

I am grateful that the Justice Department has prioritized the prosecution of federal crimes that endanger the safety and security of our people and customers. Delta has been advocating since last year for heightened reporting, investigation and prosecution in these cases.

Behind the scenes, we’ve expanded de-escalation and self-defense training for flight attendants and other front-line employees, partnered with law enforcement to increase security at dozens of airports, and shared relevant information to assist federal authorities as they hold individuals accountable.

Fairness and equity for all involved are essential. Travelers convicted of violating the law would have the opportunity for due process. And we support a process that allows offenders to have their inclusion on the list reviewed and removed if warranted.

But serious crimes have serious consequences, which, in addition to fines and imprisonment, can include losing the right to trade securities, the right to operate certain types of businesses or hold certain jobs, and countless other similar penalties. These consequences are there to protect the public and, hopefully, prevent crimes from happening in the first place.

Holding individuals accountable for criminal behavior shouldn’t be a controversial or partisan issue. Even in a divided nation, we can agree that employee and passenger safety is a critical part of emerging from the pandemic and returning to our lives. Since I first proposed this step, it has been heartening to hear many voices of support, including those of business and labor leaders.

We think it is time to stop keeping track of this threat airline by airline. Flying is a privilege, not a right. Those who choose to break the rules and put others in danger by compromising safety and security should lose that privilege. A national no-fly list, maintained with the full authority of the federal government, would be an effective tool to help ensure that, as our nation returns to the skies, the worst offenders are grounded.