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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Lawmakers are again pushing for a no-fly list for violent passengers

A new bill introduced this week seeks to ban unruly passengers from flying

(Washington Post illustration; iStock)
6 min

This story has been updated.

Seeking to keep violent passengers grounded, a trio of lawmakers have again introduced legislation that would create a no-fly list for people who act up in the air.

Under the measure, people who were fined for or convicted of “serious physical violence and abuse” while traveling by air would not be allowed to fly on commercial planes. The Transportation Security Administration would be charged with creating and managing the banned-fliers list.

The bill, called the Protection from Abusive Passengers Act, has bipartisan support: Its sponsors are Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) and Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.). The group filed the same legislation last year, to no avail.

The lawmakers held a news conference Wednesday morning to reintroduce the bill, alongside flight attendants from Southwest, Frontier and American airlines who described how they were assaulted on the job. Members of unions representing pilots, flight attendants and other transportation workers also attended.

You shouldn’t confront unruly passengers — but there are exceptions

Cher Taylor, a Frontier Airlines flight attendant, described an altercation that occurred in July 2021, when one passenger assaulted another over a carry-on bag dispute while shouting racial epithets. She said the White passenger walked toward her, still shouting the racist word and threatening to kill people.

“I was crying. I was traumatized,” said Taylor, who is Black. She said it took months of therapy before she was able to return to work. “I’m still haunted by this incident.”

Southwest flight attendant Jennifer Vitalo said she was hospitalized for about 10 days and didn’t return to work for 15 months after she was assaulted on a plane while it was still on the ground.

“I can say thanks to the grace of God and the people that I had supporting me, I was able to return to work,” she said. Vitalo said part of the “sustained trauma” that she has experienced is knowing that someone who assaults a crew member on one airline would still be allowed to book a flight with another.

“We deserve to go to work and to come home in the same shape that we were in when we got there,” she said. “So this legislation helps us to be able to do just that.”

Unruly airline passenger complaints dipped after mask rule was voided

Pedro “Pete” Enriquez, a flight attendant for 36 years, said he was on a flight between Miami and London in January when he told a passenger to return to his seat. The man refused, called Enriquez “a fat, bald c-word,” spit in his face and punched him in the eye, he said, prompting the plane to return to Miami.

Enriquez held up a photo of himself with a black eye and said the assailant had only been sentenced to community service and a fine.

“It is disappointing to me that a passenger who was arrested for physically assaulting and spitting in a flight attendant’s face can continue to fly on commercial airplanes in the United States,” he said.

Airlines can ban passengers for bad behavior, even if they haven’t been convicted of a crime, though that doesn’t carry over to other airlines. The FBI maintains the federal no-fly list as a subset of the Terrorist Screening Database, which includes people who are either known terrorists or are reasonably suspected of being involved in terrorism. Last year, Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian asked the federal government to expand that no-fly list to include people who were convicted for disrupting flights.

The ‘no-fly’ list and unruly passengers, explained

As travelers returned to the air after the pandemic started — many chafing at a federal mask mandate — disruptive behavior on planes soared. The Federal Aviation Administration said there were nearly 6,000 reports of unruly passengers in 2021, with 1,113 investigations launched and $5 million in fines proposed.

The number of incidents dropped in 2022, with 2,456 unruly passenger reports and 831 investigations started. But the penalties climbed: The FAA proposed more than $8.4 million in fines against unruly passengers last year.

In 2019, only 146 investigations were launched into unruly behavior.

Earlier this month, a United Airlines passenger was charged with interfering with a flight crew using a dangerous weapon after he allegedly tried to open an emergency door and jab a flight attendant’s throat with a broken spoon. In recent years, flight attendants have been punched in the back of the head and in the face, and they’ve had teeth knocked out.

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland told prosecutors to prioritize investigations involving disruptive air passengers in 2021.

D.C.-bound flight diverted to Raleigh-Durham over disruptive passenger

“Mask mandates have ended. Still, the epidemic of air rage continues and this elevated level of in-flight violence has to stop,” Reed said in a statement. “We must do more to protect employees and the travelling public.”

In an advisory announcing the legislation, the lawmakers said banning people from flights would “serve as a strong deterrent.”

Travelers would be considered abusive if they have been convicted of physically or sexually assaulting a crew member on a commercial flight, or threatening to do so; causing an imminent threat to the safety of a plane or people on it; assaulting a federal or airline employee with security duties at an airport; or committing other assaults, threats or intimidation against a crew member during a flight. They could also be placed on a no-fly list if they have been fined for interfering with procedures or security systems on a plane, or causing someone to do so.

Lawmakers said banned travelers would be provided with ways to appeal, guidelines to be removed from the list and procedures to remove someone who was mistakenly added. Abusive passengers would be permanently banned from participating in expedited security screening programs, such as TSA PreCheck or Global Entry.

The American Civil Liberties Union on Wednesday said a new no-fly list was not needed and called the existing one “a due process nightmare.”

Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, said in a statement that the proposed bill would give excessive discretion to the TSA over how long someone could be banned and create a “mandatory minimum punishment” that would not be applied consistently.

“Incidents on aircraft appear to be falling sharply already,” Stanley said. “But if Congress wants to further reduce air-rage incidents on aircraft, it should look at forcing the airlines to make flying a less miserable experience, especially for average people who can’t afford to play their game of paying premium prices for minor relief.”