More federal action sought on Trump-supporting flight disruptors

Airlines and crews have had to handle disruptions on their own

A Trump-supporting mob swarmed the Capitol on Jan. 6.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
A Trump-supporting mob swarmed the Capitol on Jan. 6. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted January 12, 2021 at 1:06pm

Disruptive incidents on flights leaving Washington after a violent mob burst into the Capitol last week were largely handled by individual airlines and their employees.

But leading lawmakers are urging the federal government to step in.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter A. DeFazio, D-Ore., and Aviation Subcommittee Chairman Rick Larsen, D-Wash., late Monday asked FAA Administrator Steve Dickson to impose the maximum $35,000 fine on disruptive air travelers in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

In a letter to Dickson, they also urged him to refer violations of criminal laws on flights to the Justice Department, FBI or Transportation Security Administration, depending on the nature of the incident, as well as come up with a plan for the coming inauguration.

“As FAA Administrator, you have tools at your disposal to punish and deter this kind of disruptive behavior in U.S. air travel,” the pair wrote, urging Dickson “to take every appropriate action within your statutory authority” to keep disruptive travelers off airplanes to the Jan. 20 inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden.

Also late Monday, House Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., and the panel's ranking Republican, John Katko of New York, asked TSA Administrator David Pekoske to ask what the agency is doing to “disrupt the travel of white supremacist and other domestic terrorist groups who may be planning further attacks against the U.S. government and may be targeting the inauguration” of Biden. The two requested a briefing on the issue.

'Freedom of movement'

In the letter, they raised concerns about the “freedom of movement” that attackers have enjoyed since Jan. 6, and worried about “online chatter” indicating future attacks.

“Despite this imminent threat, it appears little is being done to disrupt the travel of terrorists who just attacked the seat of the U.S. Government and wish to do so again,” they wrote.

Thompson last week urged the TSA and the FBI to add “violent perpetrators” who participated in the Capitol riots to the federal No Fly List.

Air travel, already fraught before the Jan. 6 attacks, has become more so in the days since, with a series of high-profile events and viral moments capturing the disruption.

For example:

  • Alaska Airlines banned 14 passengers on a flight from Washington, D.C., to Seattle after the passengers refused to wear face masks for most of the flight and were reportedly argumentative toward flight attendants.
  • Disruptive scenes on several American Airlines flights to Washington spurred the airline to temporarily ban the service of alcohol on flights to and from Washington last week.
  • One American Airlines pilot on a flight full of chanting Trump supporters traveling from Washington to Phoenix reportedly threatened to drop a chanting group of Trump supporters off in the middle of Kansas, according to a Trump supporter on that flight.
  • Viral videos showed Sens. Mitt Romney, R-Utah and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., being harassed at airports.

Harassment of lawmakers at airports led the House Sergeant at Arms and the Capitol Police to send a “House Alert” to members Saturday saying the agencies have partnered with the Washington Metropolitan Airports Authority and U.S. Air Marshals to increase security for members of Congress while traveling to and from Washington, D.C.

The letter urged lawmakers to submit flight itineraries to House security officials in order to properly prepare for “an increased security posture” at least through the inauguration. U.S. Capitol Police would also be stationed Washington-area airports in advance of the inauguration.

Airlines have largely handled the disruptions since Jan. 6 on their own, banning some passengers for violating airline rules or calling law enforcement when necessary.

Multiple passengers

That’s been more difficult since Jan. 6, because the groups transporting rioters to and from Washington have often had to deal with multiple passengers disinclined to follow mask requirements and willing to be unruly.

Where once flight attendants had to deal with one or two disruptive passengers, now they may be dealing with a dozen or more, as Alaska Airlines did.

But the House letters indicate an increased enthusiasm for the federal government to take more action to help keep the peace.

Dickson made the first step last weekend, issuing a statement promising that the agency “will pursue strong enforcement action against anyone who endangers the safety of flight, with penalties ranging from monetary fines to jail time.”

In a missive to union members last week, Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, urged flight crews to work to keep unruly customers from boarding airplanes at all.

“Acts against our democracy, our government, and the freedom we claim as Americans must disqualify these individuals from the freedom of flight,” she said.

Julie Hedrick, president of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, which represents flight attendants at American Airlines, in a letter to her members, wrote of a Black flight attendant who had racial epithets hurled at her as she rode with passengers to Reagan National Airport on the hotel shuttle.

Her union has asked for increased law enforcement presence at the departure gates to identify intoxicated customers or other threatening behavior. It has also asked for increased gate staff to monitor the boarding process to identify threatening behavior.

On another flight, she said, a group of passengers removed their masks after takeoff and harassed the flight attendants for the duration of the flight.

“This behavior is dangerous and threatening,” she wrote. “To say I am worried about our Flight Attendants' safety is an understatement.”