Should There Be a No-fly List for Unruly Airline Passengers?

By: Dave Roos
airline passengers
Airline passengers have become increasingly unruly, argumentative and downright ugly during the past few years, leading airline unions and flight attendants to seek redress. Dustin Shum/South China Morning Post via Getty Images

The skies have been anything but friendly lately. Incidents involving drunk, belligerent or otherwise "unruly" airline passengers skyrocketed in 2021 to nearly 6,000 cases reported to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

"We used to measure unruly passenger incidents in the dozens per year; now they're measured in the thousands," says Jeffrey Price, an aviation security expert at the Metropolitan State University of Denver and author of "Practical Aviation Security: Predicting and Preventing Future Threats."


Frustrated with COVID-19 masking rules and emboldened by alcohol, passengers have threatened and assaulted flight attendants, attempted to open cabin doors, rushed the cockpit and more. Airline workers and panicked passengers have had to wrestle unhinged offenders in the aisles, restrain them with zip ties or duct tape, and turn planes around to deliver bad actors to the authorities.

In response, the FAA has issued more than $1 million in fines, and individual airlines have banned some unruly passengers for life. But that doesn't go far enough, say some in the airline industry. In an op-ed in The Washington Post, the CEO of Delta called on the U.S. Department of Justice to maintain a "comprehensive 'no-fly' list of unruly passengers" similar to the FBI's no-fly list for suspected terrorists.

Republican lawmakers called foul, citing an FAA statistic that 72 percent of unruly passenger incidents were "mask-related." In a letter to the DOJ, a group of prominent Republican senators including Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio wrote that "[c]reating a federal 'no-fly' list for unruly passengers who are skeptical of [mask mandates] would seemingly equate them to terrorists who seek to actively take the lives of Americans and perpetrate attacks on the homeland."

Is it overkill to have a federal no-fly list for unruly passengers, or is it a necessary safeguard?


How the Terrorist No-Fly List Works

In 2003, in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the FBI created a "master watch list" of known or suspected terrorists with a subset placed on a "no-fly" list barring them from travel within the U.S. and 22 other countries. The criteria for inclusion on the terrorist no-fly list have never been made public, but Price says that there's an official application process.

"To add a name to that list, a law enforcement agency has to apply to the FBI," says Price. "You have to demonstrate that they're a known or suspected terrorist who presents a threat to aviation."


How Would an Unruly Passenger No-Fly List Work?

As private businesses, airlines have the right to deny service to anyone they want, and they already maintain their own no-fly lists for unruly passengers who have disobeyed in-flight instructions or become violent. Delta says it has 2,000 such passengers on its internal no-fly list.

What the Delta CEO and a major flight attendant union are calling for is a national no-fly list maintained by the Department of Justice for "any person convicted of a crime because of an onboard disruption." They believe this is necessary to close loopholes that would allow a banned passenger on one airline to simply book a flight on another carrier.


Not every unruly passenger incident is prosecuted as a crime. Of the thousands of incidents reported to the FAA in 2021, the agency only referred 37 to the FBI for review, and the DOJ only brought charges against 21 offenders.

While the FAA doesn't have the authority to prosecute offenders, it can issue steep fines for violating its zero-tolerance policy on unruly behavior. The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, a union representing more than 50,000 flight attendants, states that passengers fined by the FAA should also be added to the federal no-fly list.


A Federal List Would Allow for 'Due Process'

The Republican senators opposing a federal no-fly list for unruly passengers point out that nothing is stopping the airlines from sharing their no-fly lists with each other and agreeing to enforce travel bans issued by other carriers. So why do they need the DOJ to police the list?

Price says that it's a matter of "due process." For starters, there's no clear-cut definition of what constitutes an "unruly" passenger. If left in the hands of the airlines, passengers could get blacklisted for all sorts of reasons — speaking rudely to a gate agent, trying to sneak alcohol onto a flight — and not all of them deserve a lifetime ban on all U.S. carriers.


"It's one thing to say 'you can't fly on my airline,'" says Price. "It's a different thing to say, 'you can't fly.'"

If the unruly passenger no-fly list is managed by the federal government, Price says, then airlines would apply to have names added to it similar to the terrorist list. Ideally, there'd be more transparency than the terrorist list, as well as a way to get off the list if warranted.


Masks Are a 'Tipping Point' for Already Agitated Passengers

It's impossible to ignore the FAA's assertion that 72 percent of the record number of unruly passenger incidents in 2021 were "mask related."

What does that look like? In its list of fines levied against unruly passengers, the FAA cited several $9,000 fines for passengers who "allegedly interfer[ed] with crewmembers after failing to comply with the mask mandate."


In those cases, there was no mention of verbal or physical assault, but other incidents that began with refusal to wear a mask escalated quickly. On a JetBlue flight, a woman refusing to wear a mask shouted obscenities at the flight crew and intentionally bumped into another passenger on the way to the bathroom. "When the seated passenger objected to this behavior, she punched the passenger in the face," reports the FAA.

The Republican senators who wrote their letter of opposition to the DOJ said it was wrong to equate mask "skeptics" with terrorists and cited "serious concerns about future unrelated uses and potential expansions of the list based on political pressures."

Those comments rankled Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA.

"We've been punched, kicked, spit on and sexually assaulted.... This is not about 'masks' and the worst attacks have nothing to do with masks," wrote Nelson in a statement. "You're either for protecting crew and passengers from these attacks or you're against.... We urge the FAA, TSA and DOJ to come together to implement a plan with due process to keep dangerous flyers on the ground."

On the mask issue, Price says that he's spoken to airline security directors who say that in most cases the problem isn't the mask itself, even when an incident is marked as "mask-related."

"The person is tired of being told what to do in general," says Price. "You add that to the overall 'hassle factor' of flying and the mask becomes the tipping point for them."