The Federal Aviation Administration is cracking down on what it calls a “disturbing increase” in threatening or violent behavior by airline passengers, putting in place a zero-tolerance policy against disruptive behavior through March. The move comes in response to last week’s attack on the Capitol and to the longer running problem of passengers who refuse to wear masks.
Under a new order signed Wednesday by its chief, Steve Dickson, the F.A.A. plans to take legal action against passengers who assault, threaten, intimidate or interfere with airline crew members, which could include fines of up to $35,000 and referral for criminal prosecution. The agency previously had the authority to impose fines and refer people for prosecution but tended to issue warnings before going that far. Now, it will no longer issue warnings as a first step.
“Flying is the safest mode of transportation and I signed this order to keep it that way,” Mr. Dickson said in a statement.
The shift in policy comes after airlines, flight attendant unions and passengers on social media reported disruptive and threatening behavior from supporters of President Trump on flights to and from Washington and in airports. Reports of such behavior began even before the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6 and have continued since.
“We applaud F.A.A. Administrator Dickson for taking this clear stand for our safety and security,” said Sara Nelson, the head of the Association of Flight Attendants, which represents nearly 50,000 flight attendants at several airlines, including United Airlines. “This will help serve as a deterrent to unruly passengers who had been bucking the rules of aviation safety.”
On Thursday, a Black American Airlines flight attendant was subjected to “racial epithets” on a hotel shuttle in Washington, according to the union that represents the airline’s flight attendants. On Friday, Alaska Airlines banned 14 passengers from future flights, describing their behavior on a flight from Washington to Seattle as “rowdy, argumentative” and harassing. Several other airlines have also reported banning passengers from future flights in recent days, too. In two widely shared episodes, Trump supporters also heckled two Republican senators, Mitt Romney of Utah and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, as they traveled to and from Washington.
American on Wednesday said it was taking steps to ensure the safety of its crews and customers ahead of the presidential inauguration next week. Those include suspending alcohol on flights to and from Washington from Saturday through Thursday, moving crew members from hotels in downtown Washington to those closer to the airport, providing private transportation between the hotels and airports and increasing airport staffing.
In recent months, U.S. airlines have prohibited hundreds of people from their flights for refusing the wear masks, and some have now added unruly Trump supporters to that group of banned customers. Airline passenger bans are independent from the federal “no-fly list,” which is maintained by the F.B.I.’s Terrorist Screening Center. The F.A.A. has no authority over that list, though it and the airlines have said they work closely with federal law enforcement on security threats that could affect aviation safety.
Some lawmakers have called on the federal government to add people who breached the Capitol to the no-fly list. But civil liberties group have criticized the list and how its managed as unconstitutional. The American Civil Liberties Union and other groups have long sought far-reaching reforms on use of the list and the government’s ability to prohibit people from flying.