By RISHITA DASGUPTA, junior (Originally published March 2022)
”BECAUSE WE’RE DELTA AIRLINES, and life is a … nightmare,” joked iconic stand-up comedian John Mulaney in a skit about the unfortunately named airline company. But Delta Airlines itself claims to have found a bigger nightmare, even bigger than its customer service: unruly passengers. In February, Ed Bastian, the CEO of Delta Airlines, proposed that the federal government implement a no-fly list to restrict the entry of unruly passengers on airline flights. This idea is not unfounded—recorded incidents of passengers disrespecting and even assaulting airline crew have skyrocketed. The Federal Aviation Administration even reports that the number of investigated cases of unruly passenger incidents increased from about 200 to over 1,000. These incidents are mostly connected to the mask mandate— with airlines enforcing mask requirements to protect travelers from the risk of contracting COVID, many passengers think this to be an infringement on their personal liberties. While private and airline-specific no-fly lists do already exist, the fact that they are private and airline-specific means that a misbehaving passenger who violently assaults flight attendants—as one passenger did on a Delta Airlines flight from Washington D.C. to Los Angeles in 2021—can work their way around a ban by booking a flight via another airline. Isn’t it right to prioritize the safety of airline staff and protect further incidents on other airlines? However, there are many factors stopping the practicality of a federal no-fly list. The CEO of Delta Airlines petitioning the US government to instate a federal no-fly list is neither reasonable nor feasible because the list is a short-sighted solution that places the responsibility of judging character on a federal government that has already demonstrated their incompetence in doing so in the past.
Relinquishing the responsibility of deciding who should not be allowed to board flights to the federal government seems like an attractive idea, but only when thinking in terms of the COVID-19 pandemic. While the abnormal rise in unruly passenger incidents since the beginning of the pandemic necessitated this list, it is uncertain how the list would fare in post-pandemic or even how it would have fared in pre-pandemic life. It is difficult to trust the next administration, the past administration, or even this administration to make decisions in good faith about who should no longer be allowed to board any flight. During the Trump administration, President Donald Trump declared through Twitter that “ANTIFA” will be designated as a “Terrorist Organization,” a decision that truthfully had no real consequences since there is currently no system in place to designate a domestic terrorist organization in the United States. That in and of itself would have major implications for the liberties and freedoms protected by the Constitution, since it subdues political dissent against the administration in charge. After all, who else would define a federally-proposed domestic terrorist organization list than the federal government itself?
While the federal government currently cannot organize a list of domestic terrorist organizations, it can organize a list of foreign terrorist organizations. This ability of theirs is promising to proponents of a federal no-fly list: if they can do that, why can’t they do this? But while all the issues with a domestic
terrorist organization list are hypothetical, the issues with the US government’s “known or suspected terrorists” watchlist is very real. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)—a large nonprofit group dedicated to protecting personal freedoms—has multiple pages on their website dedicated to the impracticality and inherent unfairness rooted in the terrorist watchlist as well legal assistance for those
unfairly placed upon the list. According to the ACLU, the US government has “expanded its master terrorist watchlist to include as many as a million names, based on information that is often stale, poorly
reviewed, or of questionable reliability” and even “refused to disclose the standards” that they use to determine who belongs on their international no-fly list.
In 2004, Massachusetts senator Ted Kennedy told the Senate Judiciary Committee that he had been stopped and questioned multiple times because “T. Kennedy” was a common pseudonym among individuals in the terrorist watchlist at the time. On that same day that Kennedy revealed the flight issues he faced because of the federal terrorist watchlist, John Lewis, former Georgia Senator and civil rights icon, explained tha this name had actually ended up on the watchlist, and remained there despite his attempts to correct the situation with federal agencies. As an activist and nonviolent dissenter, the government genuinely considered Lewis to be a person of interest, and unfairly monitored him. While these are notable instances of renowned individuals encountering issues with the federal terrorist watchlist, there are numerous instances of civilians suing the federal government for alleged incorrect
placement on the watchlist. With its repeated lack of transparency and questionable reasoning, the federal government has shown itself to be incapable of designating who is and who is not a threat to society. It is such a consequential power to delineate terrorist threats that, unfortunately, there is not much that would stop an administration from designating political dissenters as terrorists.
Most recent incidents with unruly passengers have been caused by those that refused to comply with the mask mandate. Consequently, many right-wing politicians have condemned attempts to create a federal no-fly list as it “would seemingly equate [unruly passengers] to terrorists who seek to actively take the lives of Americans and perpetrate attacks on the homeland,” as a group of Republican Senators put forth in a letter. While they have reached a reasonable conclusion, their logic is faulty. A no-fly list would not necessarily be equating anti-maskers with terrorists; it would finally acknowledge them as a genuine problem on planes and a threat to public health. Even though this would solve that problem for
airlines and other passengers, it still stands that giving the federal government the ability to decide who can fly and who cannot is simply inviting them to abuse this power. Airlines must find other ways to enforce mask mandates without resorting to such autocratic measures.
With these considerations, how can we trust the judgements of a federal no-fly list? What degree of unruliness is necessary in a passenger in order to place them on this no-fly list? These are questions the
federal government cannot explain without tremendous justification and evidence, something they have repeatedly failed to provide. Simply put, this idea of a federal no-fly list should not take off.