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OPINION

Put violent airline passengers on a federal no-fly list

Unruly people on planes aren’t just an annoyance. They are a security threat to everyone on board.

An American Airlines flight attendant handed out snack bags aboard a Boeing 737 Max jet in Grapevine, Texas, on Dec. 2.LM Otero/Associated Press

An American Airlines flight attendant asked a passenger to take his seat while the seatbelt sign was on during a cross-country flight last week. The passenger then allegedly elbowed the flight attendant in the head and punched her in the face.

On Monday, Brian Hsu was formally charged with assault and interference with a flight crew within the special aircraft jurisdiction of the United States. American Airlines officials say he is permanently banned from their planes.

It’s not enough. Hsu should never be allowed on any commercial flight again.

If that seems too harsh, consider this. The flight attendant Hsu reportedly assaulted was hospitalized after she suffered a concussion and several broken bones in her face. It’s not an anomaly. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, there have been nearly 5,000 reports of unruly or violent passengers on airplanes so far in 2021, far exceeding any other year. Flight attendants have been verbally abused, threatened, punched, groped, shoved, and slapped.

Of course, much of this air rage hooliganism is fueled by the unconscientious objectors to mask mandates. More than 3,500 of the onboard incidents are reportedly due to passengers who refuse to don masks or wear them properly. More than 18 months into the coronavirus pandemic, the need for this simple tool to mitigate COVID-19′s spread is still being used as an excuse for ugly, aberrant behavior.

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And the start of the holiday travel season, expected to be the busiest in years, is just weeks away.

Asked on CNN Tuesday whether it’s time for a federal no-fly list for disruptive or violent passengers, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said, “This is not a step to be taken lightly, but every option has to be on the table because [what’s happening] is completely unacceptable.” Buttigieg said considering such a ban “raises a lot of legal and other issues that have to be looked at, but they should be looked at, and now’s the time.”

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So far this year, the FAA has issued more than $1 million in fines against disorderly passengers. More must be done. Violence on planes constitutes a security threat, and not just to flight attendants. Passengers have also been assaulted and spat on by their fellow flyers. One Jet Blue traveler refused to get up after lying in the aisle, threw his carry-on luggage at other passengers, and put his head up the skirt of a flight attendant.

The Washington Post reported that an airline captain accidentally descended to the wrong altitude after becoming distracted by a ruckus in the cabin caused by passengers over mask usage. While discussing options to deter violence on airplanes, Buttigieg said unruly passengers “threaten the safety of an entire aircraft.” He’s right.

Last spring, the Transportation Security Administration resumed self-defense classes for flight attendants. “It’s sad that it needs to happen,” said one Florida flight attendant who learned to use her elbows and the heel of her hand as weapons. “You get on a plane full of people and some of them aren’t very happy and you never know what’s going to happen.”

After 9/11, no-fly lists were established to keep people who “presented a specific known or suspected threat to aviation” from flying. Too often, it cast a wide and sometimes discriminatory net that ensnared the wrong people, or was even used as retaliation. Last year, the Supreme Court cleared the way for three American Muslims to sue individual FBI agents for violating their religious freedom after the men were placed on the no-fly list for refusing pressure to spy on their own communities.

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A no-fly list for passengers who’ve exhibited violent behavior on planes does not need to be as indiscriminate. Most airlines already have lists of banned customers. Delta Airlines officials are pushing for airlines to share their databases. During a September hearing, Representative Peter DeFazio of Oregon, chair of the House Transportation Committee, considered whether the FAA could “create a database” that “airlines can post to and access it in the future.”

On many flights, there’s barely enough room to stretch your legs, let alone duck if some idiot full of alcohol or their own misguided idea of freedom starts throwing hands. Beyond fines and talk, the Biden administration needs to step up and protect vulnerable flight attendants and passengers. From long security lines to hundreds of abruptly canceled flights, flying can already be a trying experience. What it doesn’t need to be is a cage match in a tube hurtling through the sky at 35,000 feet.


Renée Graham can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.