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After Capitol riot, U.S. airports and planes are a political battleground

Videos of hecklers and maskless confrontations with lawmakers spread across social media

(iStock/Washington Post illustration)

On Jan. 5, a day before the Capitol riot that resulted in four deaths, the D.C.-bound flights of two U.S. airlines showed warning signs of unrest.

“Traitor! Traitor! Traitor!” supporters of President Trump en route to Washington chanted at Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), a vocal critic of the president, on a flight to D.C. They shouted about conspiracy theories midflight and demanded he resign. One maskless heckler confronted Romney before the flight in the Salt Lake City airport and video-recorded his replies on her phone.

On an American Airlines flight from Texas to D.C. that same day, a group of Trump supporters disrupted a flight by projecting a “Trump 2020” logo onto a dimmed plane cabin’s ceiling, sparking shouting matches that moved some passengers out of their seats. A flight attendant broke up the interaction over the loudspeaker, a spokesman for American Airlines told The Washington Post at the time.

The incidents were harbingers of what was to come. And U.S. airports and planes continue to see the spillover of the aggression that sparked the Capitol riots, prompting travel officials, airlines and flight attendant unions to speak out.

During the weekend that followed the insurrection, social media lit up with videos of maskless passengers being denied boarding or escorted off planes. Maskless travelers in “Make America Great Again” hats and QAnon shirts posted TikTok and Twitter videos of themselves confronting lawmakers at airports.

At Reagan National Airport, for example, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) was followed and heckled by Trump supporters on Friday who chanted “traitor,” and they posted videos of the altercation online.

And in a world where sitting senators fly commercial like the rest of us, airports and airplanes are perhaps one of the few spaces where Trump supporters have an opportunity to physically confront lawmakers right now.

But those confrontations are not just aimed at politicians. Alaska Airlines said on Monday that it has banned 14 “non-mask compliant, rowdy, argumentative” passengers who “harassed” crew members on a flight from the D.C. area’s Dulles Airport to Seattle on Thursday.

“Their behavior was unacceptable,” an Alaska Airlines spokesperson said in a statement. “We will not tolerate any disturbance on board our aircraft or at any of the airports we serve. We’re thankful and appreciative of the efforts of our dedicated crew members who are committed each day to keeping travel safe and respectful.”

D.C.-area airports said this past week that travelers can expect increased airport security presence. Airlines including American, Delta and Southwest have said they are working closely with law enforcement, but they did not offer specific information on their safety efforts.

An American Airlines union has said its flight attendants also have faced “acts of aggression,” including racist harassment at a D.C.-area airport.

“Yesterday, racial epithets were hurled towards a Black Flight Attendant as they rode to the DCA airport in the hotel shuttle,” Association of Professional Flight Attendants (AFPA) President Julie Hedrick said in a statement Friday. “On another flight, a group of passengers removed their masks after takeoff and harassed the flight attendants and other passengers throughout the flight, up to and including the deplaning process.”

Also on Friday, Rep. Lou Correa (D-Calif.) was heckled by apparent Trump supporters at Dulles International Airport. A crowd yelled obscenities at him until airport security broke up the confrontation, according to a video of the incident obtained by CNN. Correa said in a statement that he blames the president for the aggression.

The violence in D.C. and travel confrontations unfolding at airports moved the Federal Aviation Administration’s head to call for the strict enforcement of safety measures on U.S. flights.

“As a former airline captain, I can attest from first-hand experience that the cabin crew’s primary responsibility is to ensure the safety of all passengers,” FAA Administrator Steve Dickson said in a statement this past weekend. “The FAA monitors and tracks all commercial passenger flights in real time, and reporting mechanisms are in place for crew members to identify any number of safety and security concerns that may arise in flight. This includes unruly passenger behavior, which can distract, disrupt and threaten crewmembers’ ability to conduct their key safety functions.”

Dickson said the FAA will pursue action against any passengers who endanger a flight, and he said the penalties for doing so range from steep fines to jail time.

The chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee has publicly called for the FBI and Transportation Security Administration to use the federal no-fly list to bar anyone involved in the attack on the Capitol from flying. A spokesperson for the TSA told The Washington Post in an email that the agency “will accommodate FBI requests and congressional authorizations related to no fly lists.”

At least one arrest related to the Capitol riots has taken place at an airport. On Thursday, federal officials arrested Nicholas R. Ochs, a member of the Proud Boys, a right-wing extremist group with ties to white nationalism, at Honolulu International Airport upon his return from D.C., where he had posted social media images of himself smoking cigarettes inside the Capitol amid the insurrection.

Ochs unsuccessfully ran as a Republican for a seat in Hawaii’s State House to represent Waikiki in 2020. He is charged with unlawful entry into a restricted building, according to the U.S. attorney’s office for the District of Hawaii, and he will be transported to D.C. to stand trial.

The Washington Post’s Jaclyn Peiser and Ian Duncan contributed to this report.

Read more:

The capitol Siege was planned online. Trump supporters are now planning the next one.

Vaccine requirements for travel would be ‘discrimination,’ global tourism group says

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