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FAA Cracks Down On Unruly Airline Passengers Ahead Of Biden Inauguration

FAA administrator Stephen Dickson, seen testifying before a Senate committee last year, has ordered "zero tolerance" of passengers who disrupt airline flights.
Graeme Jennings
POOL/AFP via Getty Images
FAA administrator Stephen Dickson, seen testifying before a Senate committee last year, has ordered "zero tolerance" of passengers who disrupt airline flights.

After several disruptive incidents and confrontations on flights to and from Washington, D.C., last week, federal authorities are now cracking down on unruly airline passengers.

The head of the Federal Aviation Administration signed an order Wednesday to enforce a "zero-tolerance" policy against passengers who engage in threatening or disruptive behavior on commercial airline flights.

The FAA says there has been "a disturbing increase in incidents where airline passengers have disrupted flights with threatening or violent behavior. These incidents have stemmed both from passengers' refusals to wear masks and from recent violence at the U.S. Capitol."

Several videos of supporters of President Trump chanting, shouting and berating fellow passengers including members of Congress have gone viral. In one, on an American Airlines flight from Texas to Washington, D.C., passengers shout at flight attendants while someone projects a pro-Trump image on the airplane cabin ceiling. In another, Trump supporters heckle Utah Sen. Mitt Romney with chants of "traitor," on a flight from Salt Lake City to the nation's capital.

Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., toldtheChicago Sun-Times that some passengers on his United flight back home to Chicago last Thursday threatened violence.

"They were beyond abusive to the flight attendants, crew... "one of the most abusive" of "these idiots had to be restrained. He was charging one of the flight attendants," Quigley said. "I was afraid for the life of the flight attendant. He called her a Communist and then the c-word."

Because of those incidents, airports, airlines, the TSA, DHS and other federal law enforcement agencies had been ramping up security measures in preparation for the possibility of more protesters going to Washington in advance of next week's inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden.

FAA Administrator Stephen Dickson's order says the agency will no longer issue warnings to passengers refusing to wear masks or acting in a belligerent or threatening manner. Instead, the agency "will pursue legal enforcement action against any passenger who assaults, threatens, intimidates, or interferes with airline crew members." Penalties could include fines up to $35,000 and jail time.

"Flying is the safest mode of transportation and I signed this order to keep it that way," Administrator Dickson said in a news release.

Airlines and their employees support the stricter enforcement action.

"First strike and you're out," said Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, in a statement. "We applaud FAA Administrator Dickson for taking this clear stand for our safety and security. This will help serve as a deterrent to unruly passengers who had been bucking the rules of aviation safety. We continue to work with our airlines, the FAA, the TSA and law enforcement to keep our skies safe."

In a tweet, the industry group Airlines for America said, "The safety and security of passengers and employees is the top priority of the U.S. airline industry, and we welcome the @FAANews' order to implement a more stringent policy regarding unruly passenger behavior."

The order is a bit of a reversal for Dickson and the FAA, which since March has resisted industry and airline employee union calls for a federal mask mandate on planes. This isn't a mask mandate but is a strong crackdown on passengers who violate the airlines' own policies requiring passengers to wear masks or face coverings.

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David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.
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