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Airlines, FAA Tighten Security Ahead of Biden Inauguration

Airlines are preparing for heightened tensions ahead of President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration next week, following last week’s deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol and a spate of incidents on flights to and from Washington, D.C.

For months, flight attendants have grappled with passengers who refuse to comply with airlines’ mask requirements, sometimes resulting in tense standoffs. Now, after politically charged disruptions on flights following last week’s pro-Trump riot at the Capitol, lawmakers and labor unions have raised alarms about the potential for more in-flight unrest.

Airlines and airports are adding staff and beefing up security in the D.C. area, part of a range of new security measures being implemented in response to concerns about armed protests and potential violence at the Jan. 20 inaugural ceremony.

Carriers including Delta Air Lines Inc., United Airlines Holdings Inc. and American Airlines Group won’t allow people to carry firearms in checked luggage on flights to the D.C.-area until after the inauguration. It is already against the rules to carry guns in carry-on bags. ‘We see compliance on the ground, but after takeoff, the story sometimes changes.’

— Julie Hedrick, president of union that represents American Airlines flight attendants American Airlines is extending a suspension of alcohol sales on flights to and from D.C.-area airports from Jan. 16 to Jan 21. American had already suspended alcohol service for coach passengers because of Covid-19 protocols. The airline is also emphasizing the importance of complying with crew instructions and mask rules in preflight announcements. Alaska Air announced several measures aimed at limiting disruptions and monitoring flights to D.C. starting tomorrow. The airline said it would limit the number of tickets that can be purchased on flights to and from the D.C. metro area, following calls by law enforcement to avoid travel to the area. Passengers will be required to remain in their seats for one hour before landing at D.C.-area airports, or an hour after taking off from there. And the airline said it has procedures in place for when things go wrong, such as turning back to the gate or diverting flights if needed.

The Federal Aviation Administration said Wednesday that it plans to crack down on unruly passengers following what it described as a “disturbing increase in incidents where airline passengers have disrupted flights with threatening or violent behavior.” Many of those incidents stemmed from last week’s violence at the Capitol and refusal to comply with airline mask policies, the FAA said.

Instead of issuing warnings, the FAA said it would pursue legal action against passengers who assault, threaten, intimidate or interfere with airline crew members. Violations can result in fines of up to $35,000 and could be referred for criminal fines or jail time.

In December, the FAA proposed civil penalties against two airline passengers who wouldn’t wear masks and assaulted flight attendants. In one of the cases, a passenger on Allegiant Air who repeatedly screamed obscenities and hit a flight attendant after being told to wear a mask, causing the flight to be diverted, was fined $15,000.

Airlines have required customers to wear masks for months, and carriers have banned passengers for refusing to comply—United, Delta and Alaska together have put around 1,800 people on their internal blacklists. Industry group Airlines for America wrote to Mr. Biden on Thursday that a federal mask requirement on all modes of transport and in airports would help crews enforce the rules, but asked that any mandate be temporary and allow airlines to maintain existing policies and procedures, according to a letter reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.

Julie Hedrick, president of the union that represents flight attendants at American, said some passengers on recent flights have become aggressive—chanting, yelling, harassing passengers and crew in addition to removing masks.

“We see compliance on the ground, but after takeoff, the story sometimes changes,” she said in a statement Friday.

Some of the recent disturbances involved large groups of passengers, making it more challenging for flight attendants to get things under control, their representatives said.

“This is a new kind of threat in the air,” said Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, which represents flight attendants at United and several other carriers, in a statement Wednesday.

Ms. Nelson has called for people who participated in the violence at the Capitol to be barred from flying, as have some lawmakers, including Sen. Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.).

A Transportation Security Administration spokesman said the agency will accommodate FBI requests regarding the federal no-fly list.

Delta Chief Executive Ed Bastian said that TSA is looking carefully at people who rioted at the Capitol and he expects people will be added to the government’s no-fly list once they are identified. He told the Journal on Wednesday that Delta would ban passengers if they are identified by law enforcement as having taken part in the violence.

“This is criminal behavior,” he said in an interview. Mr. Bastian said Delta banned six passengers who harassed Sen. Mitt Romney (R., Utah) on a recent flight to Washington, D.C. in an incident that was captured on video.

“Those people will never fly Delta again,” he said.

This article originally appeared on The Wall Street Journal

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