US House Democrats urge aviation body to work to avoid civil unrest on flights

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) – Two senior House Democrats urged the Federal Aviation Administration on Monday (Jan 12) to take steps to prevent the use of aircraft to transport people intent on violently disrupting the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden.

Hours after the letter was sent, Southwest Airlines said 95 passengers and six crew members had been evacuated from a flight into Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport from Phoenix after crew identified a written threat upon arrival earlier this evening.

Southwest did not provide details on the note or the threat and said no arrests have been reported.

Representative Peter DeFazio, who chairs the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and Representative Rick Larsen who oversees an aviation subcommittee, urged FAA Administrator Steve Dickson in a letter first reported by Reuters “to limit the chance that the nation’s commercial airline system could be used as a means of mass transportation to Washington, DC, for further violence in connection with the inauguration” on Jan 20 and to “prevent civil unrest from jeopardising aviation safety and leading to injury or worse during flight.”

“We respectfully urge the FAA and the aviation community to think creatively on what authorities or additional measures will reduce the possibility of unruly and disruptive behaviour on aircraft over the next nine days as well as that of insurrectionists exploiting the freedom to fly to carry out nefarious schemes against democracy,” the letter said.

The FAA said it would respond directly to the lawmakers.

On Saturday (Feb 9), Dickson vowed to take “strong enforcement action” against unruly passengers following reports of supporters of US President Donald Trump disrupting flights returning from Washington after rioters stormed the US Capitol.

Dickson said the “FAA will pursue strong enforcement action against anyone who endangers the safety of a flight, with penalties ranging from monetary fines to jail time.”

There have been numerous videos posted of unruly behaviour on Washington flights, including one American Airlines flight to Phoenix in which the pilot threatened to divert “to the middle of Kansas and dump people off.”

A trade group representing major U.S. airlines said it will “continue to work collaboratively with these authorities and our industry partners to provide a safe journey for travellers and employees.”

The flight attendants union had urged airlines to bar Trump supporters who stormed the Capitol from departing Washington on commercial flights after exhibiting “mob mentality behaviour” on flights into the region.

Alaska Airlines said on Friday it banned 14 passengers from future travel after “unacceptable” behaviour on a flight from Washington to Seattle.

US airlines and law enforcement agencies have already bolstered security at Washington-area airports. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham was harassed last Friday by supporters of Trump and called a “traitor” at Washington’s Reagan National Airport before departing on a flight, according to videos posted on social media.

Separately, Representative Bennie Thompson, who chairs the Homeland Security Committee, and Representative John Katko, the top Republican on the committee, asked the Transportation Security Administration about its efforts to disrupt the travel of “domestic terrorist groups who may be planning further attacks and may be targeting next week’s inauguration”.

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