The Realities of a Federal No-Fly List

(February 2022)

This month, Delta Air Lines’ CEO, Ed Bastian, formally requested the Justice Department to help set up a nation-wide no-fly list for unruly passengers. Specifically, Bastian’s letter to the U.S. Attorney General stated:

“In addition to the welcome increase in enforcement and prosecutions, we are requesting you support our efforts with respect to the much-needed step of putting any person convicted of an on-board disruption on a national, comprehensive, unruly passenger “no-fly” list that would bar that person from traveling on any commercial air carrier.”

2021 Year End Totals

According to the Federal Aviation Authority website, the FAA investigates unruly-passenger incidents reported by airline crews. The 2021 data reflects all cases the FAA investigated that cited violations of one or more FAA regulations or federal laws:

  • 5,981 Unruly Passenger Reports
  • 4,290 Mask-related Incidents Reported
  • 1,110 Investigations Initiated
  • 350 Enforcement Actions Initiated


The Government’s Response

A statement issued from the Department of Justice advised the “letter would be referred to the appropriate departments”, offering they continue to “prioritize the investigations of prosecutions of those who engage in criminal behavior that threatens the safety of passengers, flight crews and flight attendants.”

Today, assaults, intimidation and threats of violence that interfere with flight crews and flight attendants are prohibited under federal law.

However, the request to augment the current federal no-fly list is receiving opposition. According to Yahoo Finance, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said the government supports airlines taking action to protect their passengers and crew by banning people from flying. But he acknowledged that “it gets a little more complex” when there is an effort to involve the government in that process.

“We should continue to look at what we can do at a policy level, knowing that there’s a lot of complexity when you try to do that in a way that cuts across airlines and is developed by the government.”

Additional objections were received by the American Civil Liberties Union, whose senior policy analyst, Jay Stanley, commented “Generally, we think it’s a bad idea.” There are questions about how Delta’s request would work, who would decide who made the list, how long they would stay on it and how they would be removed. He pointed out that an individual on a no-fly list would create a new punishment for things that are already prosecuted through the criminal justice system.


Are Airlines Sharing Their Own No-Fly Lists?

U.S. carriers have legal authority to create their own no-fly lists as long as the carriers are not acting in an arbitrary manner, and their actions are in order to curb activities that impact the safety of the individual or others on the flight. In Delta’s letter, Bastian stated that over 19,000 people were put on their list for refusing to comply with mask rules.

In September 2021, Delta reached out to other carriers to share their own no-fly lists, noting “a list of banned customers doesn’t work as well if that customer can fly with another airline.” But at the time, a representative for the trade group Airlines for America told a House Transportation Committee hearing that there were “legal and operational challenges” with sharing that information between carriers.

With over $1 million in fines in 2021 alone, the FAA continues to receive reports of unruly passengers, and as of December announced that passengers would also be at risk of losing their TSA PreCheck status. The inconvenience of mask requirements is testing many traveler’s patience. However, in order for business travel to truly resume, travelers are asked to be kind, accept the rules that are being applied by the industry, and respect your fellow travelers and the airline employees who serve you. 

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