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No-Fly List Talks Intensify in U.S. on Surge in Violent Incidents

Date: February 21, 2022

By  and , Bloomberg

The largest U.S. airlines have been working with the Biden administration for months on creating a nationwide no-fly list that would ban from commercial carriers the worst of unruly passengers, as attacks on flight attendants, airport gate agents and fellow travelers increase.

Discussions among the carriers, their Airlines for America trade group, the Department of Homeland Security and Transportation Security Administration over the issue have intensified over the last six months or so, two people familiar with the issue said, asking not to be named because the talks are private. Airline unions also have been involved in some of the talks. 

The effort highlights the industry’s increasing push for more effective ways of quelling the jump in unruly passenger incidents since a pandemic-era requirement to wear masks on board planes was imposed. Of 5,981 such reports last year, 72% were related to masks, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. The agency launched investigations of 1,105 more serious incidents last year, more than three times the previous high since the agency began collecting such data in 1995. It has initiated enforcement action in 390 cases since the start of 2021. The current mask mandate is set to expire March 18.

The biggest stumbling block so far has been setting uniform standards for when someone would be included on the list, one of the people said. Other thorny issues include how to limit inevitable cases of mistaken identity, which federal agency would oversee and administer the system, and whether what amounts to a full ban on air travel for life would be warranted for violators.

“It’s one thing to say you can’t fly on one airline,” said Jeffrey Price, an aviation security consultant and professor of aviation management at Metropolitan State University of Denver, who hasn’t been involved in the talks.  “It’s another thing to say you can’t fly on any airline.”

American Airlines Group Inc.Southwest Airlines Co. and JetBlue Airways Corp. referred requests for comment to Airlines for America, while United Airlines Holdings Inc. declined to comment. Delta Air Lines Inc. and the TSA didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Under Consideration

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has said a unified no-fly list -- including at least some passengers banned by individual airlines -- is something the government is considering, though his agency plays no current role in security checks. Delta has put nearly 1,900 people on its no-fly list for refusing to comply with mask requirements and has shared 900 of the names with the TSA to possibly pursue civil penalties. United Airlines has banned more than 800 from its flights for refusing to wear a mask. Southwest declined to disclose how many are on its internal list.

“Obviously, there are enormous implications in terms of civil liberties, in terms of how you administer something like that,” Buttigieg said in an interview on CNN. “Even when it was over terrorism, it was not a simple thing to set up. So none of these things can be done lightly. But I think all of these things need to be looked at, at a moment like this.”

Delta Chief Executive Officer Ed Bastian wrote to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland on Feb. 3 asking for federal officials to follow up on an earlier decision to prosecute people involved in the most egregious onboard incidents. Bastian called for “the much-needed step of putting any person convicted of an onboard disruption on a national, comprehensive, unruly passenger ‘no-fly’ list that would bar that person from traveling on any commercial air carrier.”  

“This action will help prevent future incidents and serve as a strong symbol of the consequences of not complying with crew member instructions on commercial aircraft,” Bastian said.  Delta declined to comment further about the letter.  

Privacy Concerns 

Flight attendants’ unions previously floated the idea of adding the names of those involved in such incidents to the government’s no-fly list. While airlines maintain their own internal lists that prohibit unruly travelers from buying tickets after incidents, they haven’t been willing to share the names with competitors because of privacy concerns. 

The TSA is responsible for checking all people who purchase tickets on U.S. airlines against various watchlists compiled by intelligence, law enforcement and homeland security agencies. The TSA and the FAA announced in December that they were coordinating and some unruly passengers could lose streamlined airport screening privileges under TSA’s PreCheck program.

Airlines currently aren’t geared for administering and checking passengers against a no-fly list, Price, the aviation security consultant, said. The federal government doesn’t supply airlines with its classified list of potential terrorists. Instead, airlines send the names of passengers to the TSA, which conducts the matches.

The current no-fly list designed to prevent terrorists from gaining access to aircraft is run by a federal agency known as the Terrorist Screening Center, which was established after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. It’s run by a consortium of agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Homeland Security and includes the names of known or suspected terrorists.

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