It was the airline equivalent of an exasperated parent yelling: “I will turn this car around, and we will go home if you don’t behave!”
After rowdy passengers repeatedly chanted “USA! USA! USA!” during an American Airlines flight Friday from Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C., to Phoenix Sky Harbor, the pilot broke over the intercom with a warning for passengers to calm down for the rest of the three-and-a-half-hour flight.
“We’ll put this plane down in the middle of Kansas and dump people off; I don’t care,” said the pilot. “So, behave please.”
If that prompts your inner teenager to roll your eyes, some context helps. Many of the passengers were on their way home from the Jan. 6 protests in Washington, D.C., and the violent and deadly riot by supporters of President Trump at the U.S. Capitol that attempted to halt Congress’ tally of the electoral college votes, the final official acknowledgement of the election win by President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, prior to Wednesday’s inauguration. Along with their boisterousness, many of the chanting passengers had refused to wear face masks as required by the airline’s covid-19 precautions and the urging of the plane’s crew.
This was after earlier reports of similarly unruly passengers, including an Alaska Airlines flight a day after the Capitol riot from Washington Dulles to Sea-Tac International Airport, during which more than a dozen passengers were described as being “non-mask compliant, rowdy, argumentative” and had harassed crew members. Alaska, following the flight, announced that it had banned 14 of the flight’s passengers from future flights on the airline while its pandemic mask policy is in place.
In the words of Alaska Airlines’ recent advertising campaign — to the tune of the 1982 synth-pop hit “Safety Dance” — “If your friends don’t mask (and why don’t they mask?) then they won’t fly this airline.”
While the political rallying cries are a new twist, airlines have been forced to deal with defiant passengers who have refused to wear face masks since most airlines mandated their use last August. Alaska has banned more than 300 passengers for violating its mask mandate, while United Airlines has barred nearly 700 from flights, including 60 in the past week.
Airlines, federal lawmakers and the Federal Aviation Administration are about to crack down even harder on rebellious passengers, and we’re not talking about withholding bags of complimentary pretzels.
The FAA announced Monday that causing a risk to safety aboard a flight could result in jail time or a fine up to $35,000.
“As a former airline captain, I can attest from firsthand experience that the cabin crew’s primary responsibility is to ensure the safety of all passengers,” FAA Administrator Steve Dickson said in a statement. “I expect all passengers to follow crew member instructions, which are in place for their safety and the safety of flight.”
Lawmakers, including U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., who serves on the House Transportation Committee, joined committee chairman Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., in calling on the FAA to go even further by referring violations of criminal law for any passenger interfering with the duties of flight crew members.
Larsen and DeFazio also asked the FAA to meet with representatives of airlines, airports and labor groups to develop a plan to share information on unruly passengers, potentially extending one airline’s passenger ban to others to prevent civil unrest from jeopardizing aviation safety and limiting the use of the nation’s airlines as mass transit for those planning further violence in the days before and after the inauguration.
Why these steps and warnings are necessary should need little explanation. For two decades airline passengers have lived with invasive and time-consuming security measures before boarding planes, all in the name of flight security. Now, having endured those measures, the safety of their flight is potentially jeopardized by passengers who are as well-behaved as drunk skiers on a party bus. Forcing flight crews to deal with unruly passengers, then deescalate dangerous situations pulls them away from their duties to ensure the safety of the flight and the comfort of their passengers.
We’d rather fly with 14 crying babies in the cabin.
Beyond flight safety, the unmasked and shouting passengers risk turning each jetliner into a super-spreader delivery device. Many of the protesters — even if they hadn’t participated in storming the Capitol — still were part of rallies and marches, milling about with thousands of mostly-unmasked Trump supporters, risking their own infection and then spreading that potential infection to fellow passengers who have no choice in who is seated near them.
This isn’t to suggest that the president’s supporters should be silenced; protest — peaceful protest, please — is their right. But save it for the street; not the captive audience of an airliner cabin.