Republicans Push Back on ‘No-fly List’ for Unruly Passengers

Liz Carey

Washington, DC ( – A group of eight Republican senators pushed back on a request to put passengers convicted of federal crimes stemming from unruly behavior on a national “no-fly” list.

Earlier this month, Delta asked the Justice Department to add violent and disruptive passengers to the “no-fly” list, citing an increase in the number of unruly passenger incidents. As of Feb. 15, the Federal Aviation Administration said airlines had reported 394 incidents of unruly passengers, 255 related to mask wearing. Of those, 121 are under investigation, and 80 have been referred to the Justice Department for enforcement action.

But Republican Senators, in a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland on Feb. 14, said they worried such a list would equate anti-maskers with terrorists.

“Creating a federal ‘no-fly’ list for unruly passengers who are skeptical of this mandate would seemingly equate them to terrorists who seek to actively take the lives of Americans and perpetrate attacks on the homeland,” the senators wrote.

The group – U.S. Sens. Cynthia Lummis, Wyoming; Mike Lee, Utah; James Lankford, Oklahoma; Marco Rubio, Florida; Kevin Cramer, North Dakota; Ted Cruz, Texas; John Hoeven, North Dakota; and Rick Scott, Florida – said they condemn the violence, but urge the DOJ to reject the airline’s request.

“The creation of this list by DOJ would result in a severe restriction on the ability of citizens to fully exercise their constitutional right to engage in interstate transportation,” the letter said.

Instead, the group suggested the matter should be decided by Congress.

Currently, airlines may ban disruptive passengers from their own flights. But those banned passenger lists are not shared with other airlines. The airlines have asked the government to step in and Delta renewed their request this month.

Proponents of the list said it would be a separate list from the one run by the F.B.I. that prevents terrorists from flying on planes.

Sara Nelson, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants, called the senators’ letter “irresponsible and political brinkmanship that puts our economic security at risk right along with our lives.”

“Get serious. Homeland security is homeland security. Our flights are under attack by a small number of people and it has to stop,” Nelson said in a press release. “Just this past week an out of control passenger tried to open aircraft doors and charge the flight deck. We’ve been punched, kicked, spit on, and sexually assaulted. This puts everyone at risk and disrupts the safety of flight, which is never acceptable and every single one of the Senators who signed this letter knows full well what is at stake if we leave a gap in aviation safety and security.”

Nelson said the issue was not about masks.

“This is not about ‘masks,’ and the worst attacks have nothing to do with masks. You’re either for protecting crew and passengers from these attacks or you’re against,” she said. “We need clear and consistent rules with strict consequences for those who cannot respect our collective efforts to keep everyone safe – in the air and on the ground.”

Nelson asked that the FAA, TSA and DOJ work together to implement a plan that would keep dangerous flyers on the ground.

Last week, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said a national no-fly list for violent airplane passengers “should be on the table,” and that federal authorities were looking at a number of policy recommendations. But he acknowledged that the list would have a number of civil liberty implications.

Recently, two flights were diverted when passengers interfered with flight crew members. Two passengers on separate flights were detained after attempting to open aircraft exits in flight. One of the passengers was subdued by flight attendants assisted by other passengers.

On Feb. 10, FBI special agent Craig W. Noyes filed a federal criminal complaint against a disruptive passenger who cause a flight from New York to Florida to be diverted to North Carolina.

Michael Aaron Ganter, the complaint said, assaulted and intimidated flight attendants and crew members, and threatened other passengers.

Ganter was on Frontier Airlines flight 1335 from New York to Orlando when he started complaining that he was being stuck with needles and that his DNA was being collected.

Witnesses said Ganter claimed “he was from the Indian tribe ‘Slapahoe’ and that he was going to slap people and beat them to death.” Some of the comments and threats were directed toward a child and the child’s mother, who were seated behind him, the complaint alleges.

While flight attendants moved passengers near Ganter away from him, other moved to be near his seat which agitated him. Ganter then stood up and threatened to kill everyone on the plane.

The number of referrals for enforcement the FAA has made since the start of last year has doubled since October. Between Jan. 1 and the end of October, the FAA had referred 37 cases for enforcement. Currently, the agency said it has referred a total of 80 cases for enforcement.

Last year, the FAA instituted a “Zero Tolerance” policy on violent behavior and unruly passengers. Later, the DOJ said they would make prosecuting unruly passengers a priority. Currently, the FAA is working with the FBI so unruly passengers face criminal prosecution when warranted.

The Transportation Security Administration said it would revoked expedited screening privileges as part of its PreCheck program for unruly passengers.

In July, the AFA released a study that surveyed its members, and found that 85 percent reported having to deal with unruly passengers in the first half of 2021. More than half of the respondents (58 percent) said they had experienced at least five incidents this year, and almost a fifth (17 percent) said they had experienced a physical incident.