Pandemic travel highlighted ‘air rage’ and the need for a national no-fly list

Air rage has run rampant during the COVID-19 pandemic. Over 6,000 passengers have been placed on airline no-fly lists for exhibiting aggressive behavior during flights, including being unwilling to abide by the federal transportation face mask mandate.  

Air rage is unacceptable, for any reason. It threatens the safety of flight crew and passengers. The confined quarters of an air cabin makes every person vulnerable when a passenger acts out. The reasons for the air rage are likely justified in the minds of the perpetrator, but the behavior is unjustifiable to all.

Given that the airlines have already created their own no-fly lists, is a national no-fly list even needed? 

The answer is yes.  

Unruly passengers are more likely to be less seasoned travelers who fly infrequently. As such, they would have no loyalty to any airline, so banning them on any one airline would not prevent them from flying another.

Air rage is not about bad behavior on an airline, it is about bad behavior in the air system, which is airline independent. A national no-fly list accessible across all airlines would facilitate the sharing of such information.

Note that each airline does not oversee airport security for their flights. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) manages security across all airlines, further supporting a national no-fly list.

A national no-fly list would be accessed by the TSA at airport security checkpoints, effectively preventing such people from even entering the sterile side of the airport. Most importantly, it would communicate zero tolerance for bad behavior during air travel across the entire air system.

A national no-fly list also would serve as a deterrent for air rage. Passengers know that any bad behavior in flight would be dealt with across the entire air system, not just within airlines. This removes the airlines from the role of law enforcement to one of communicator, with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and TSA appropriately assuming responsibility for managing the unruly passengers after the incident.  

Airlines would also be free to add their own airline-specific penalties to violators, like canceling their frequent flyer account.

Are such penalties too severe? Perhaps. But air rage is far too dangerous to not be taken seriously, since every person on a flight with a passenger exhibiting air rage cannot escape the event; they are held hostage within the confines of the air cabin.  

Being placed on a national no-fly list should not be a permanent sentence of guilt. Unruly passengers could be listed for some designated time, after which they could be placed on probation for an extended time while they are permitted to fly. However, second-time offenders could be permanently banned if their behavior so warrants such a decision.  

COVID-19 in-flight rules and mask mandates may have instigated higher levels of air-rage, but they alone did not cause them. The pandemic has created unprecedented levels of anxiety and social challenges that have pushed Americans many beyond and outside their emotional comfort zones. This has manifested itself in numerous ways, with higher numbers of automobile deaths and unprecedented levels of opioid overdoses. Air rage is just yet another manifestation of such social angst. 

Several Republican lawmakers argue that banning people from flying violates their constitutional right to engage in interstate transportation. Nonsense. These lawmakers (Democrats are also guilty of such shenanigans on other issues) are abusing the Constitution for their self-serving political objectives. A no-fly list would only limit interstate transportation for one mode of transportation. 

As the country transitions into a new post-pandemic equilibrium, the uncertainty around the end game will not return society to its pre-pandemic conditions. Moving to the yet-to-be-determined new equilibrium will continue to elicit unexpected responses, including potentially dangerous behavior like air rage. 

Air rage is unacceptable, and as such, must be addressed swiftly and decisively. A national no-fly list would demonstrate the seriousness of air rage and that it is uniformly condemned by all stakeholders. However, a national no-fly list should not be a permanent sentence for unruly flyers. Once implemented, it will provide a mechanism to protect air travelers as our society continues its current transition to its new societal equilibrium.

Sheldon H. Jacobson, Ph.D., is a founder professor of Computer Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He applies his expertise in data-driven risk-based decision-making to evaluate and inform public policy. He has researched aviation security systems since 1995. His research provided the technical foundations for TSA PreCheck.

Tags Airlines Aviation No-Fly List pandemic travel Sheldon H. Jacobson travel

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