The number of unruly airline passengers referred to the FBI has doubled since November

Image: Reuters/Mike Blake
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Bad behavior is becoming so prevalent on US flights that president Joe Biden’s administration is considering a “no-fly” list targeting unruly passengers, a measure supported by the airline industry.

The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has referred 80 unruly passengers to law enforcement officials for potential criminal prosecution since January 2021, the agency said Feb. 16.

The number of passengers directed to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has doubled since November, as airlines deal with a record number of disruptions on flights. Most of the incidents tracked by the FAA are related to covid-19 pandemic restrictions, such as mask requirements.

Covid-19 restrictions prompt record number of airline disruptions

The number of investigations initiated into unruly passengers rose by more than 650% last year compared to 2019 as airlines struggled to enforce public health mandates put into place during the coronavirus pandemic.

Of the more than 6,000 unruly passenger reports the FAA has received since the beginning of last year, the majority of them (71%) have been mask-related incidents. Federal law requires all airline passengers to wear masks in airports and onboard planes, but the regulation has triggered backlash on some flights. Last month, for example, an international American Airlines flight en route to London had to turn back to Miami after a passenger refused to wear her mask.

US airlines and their unions have been pressing the FAA to push for criminal prosecution in cases of severe passenger disruptions. In November a man faced federal charges of assault and interfering with a flight crew after he allegedly punched a flight attendant on a plane from New York City to Santa Ana, California.

The FAA didn’t say how many of the 80 cases they’ve referred to the FBI over the past year led to charges.

Calls for a no-fly list grow

As more reports of unruly passengers have circulated on social media in recent weeks, the Biden administration has been working with major US airlines and unions to develop a no-fly list that would ban some unruly passengers from commercial fights. Both Delta and United have already banned passengers from their flights for refusing mask requirements.

The proposition of a no-fly list has raised concerns among human rights groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, which warned that airline passengers on an already existing list of alleged terrorists have been subject to abuse and unfair treatment for years. On Feb. 14 a group of eight Republican senators also voiced opposition to a no-fly list in a letter (pdf) to US attorney general Merrick Garland, saying such a measure would “seemingly equate” unruly passengers to terrorists.