Starting Friday, Alaska Airlines will implement new temporary security measures on its flights, particularly those headed to Washington, D.C. or nearby East Coast cities, to try to head off potential unruly behavior by passengers traveling to the capital to protest the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden.
Alaska said it will limit the number of passengers on flights into the D.C. metro area, increase mask enforcement, add extra cabin crew and set up a dedicated command center at its headquarters to monitor activity on those flights from check-in to arrival.
Command center staff will monitor every phase of the journey to “allow us to quickly respond to and resolve any incidents,” the airline said in a statement. “We have procedures to ensure compliance prior to departure and takeoff, and for turn-back or diversions, should the circumstance warrant.”
Alaska spokesperson Bobbie Egan said that “if there is any noncompliance, we are instructing our pilots to divert or, if the plane is still on the ground, to go back to the gate.”
The measures are in response to multiple incidents of rowdy or threatening behavior aboard flights operated by U.S. airlines last week, initiated by protesters flying together in large groups to D.C. to participate in what became a bloody riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
That day, Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants union, said in a statement, “the mob mentality behavior that took place on several flights to the D.C. area yesterday was unacceptable and threatened the safety and security of every single person onboard.”
Such behavior occurred on flights headed not only to D.C. but to cities such as Philadelphia, from where groups of protesters traveled by road to the protests. And incidents continued on return flights as the protesters traveled back home.
For example, a number of passengers onboard Alaska Airlines Flight 1085 from Washington Dulles to Seattle on Jan. 7 refused to comply with the requirement to wear masks, were loudly argumentative with other passengers and harassed crew members, Alaska said.
As a result of incidents on Alaska flights last week, the airline added 37 people to its no-fly list, bringing to 303 the total number it has banned from flying.
In moving to tighten security, Alaska is collaborating with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the federal Transportation Security Administration (TSA), and law enforcement agencies.
“Law enforcement is asking everyone to help with the situation,” said Alaska’s Egan.
On Wednesday, FAA chief Steve Dickson signed an order directing a zero-tolerance legal enforcement policy against unruly airline passengers “in the wake of recent, troubling incidents.”
Dickson said aggressive and harassing behavior on board a plane or refusal to comply with crew instructions is dangerous because it can distract from and disrupt in-flight safety procedures.
While historically the FAA has addressed unruly behavior with initial warnings, the new policy, effective through the end of March, mandates immediate legal action with potential penalties including fines of up to $35,000 and imprisonment.
“The agency will pursue legal enforcement action against any passenger who assaults, threatens, intimidates, or interferes with airline crew members,” the FAA said.
To alleviate the burden on flight crews, Alaska said it will add extra flight attendants and limit the number of passengers aboard its 31 weekly flights into D.C.-area airports from Seattle, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Other Alaska security measures include:
- All passengers traveling to and from the D.C. metro area must remain in their seats for one hour from takeoff or landing to these airports.
- Checked firearms are temporarily banned on flights to the D.C. metro area.
- Increased mask enforcement on the ground and throughout the journey for all routes, including at the departure and arrival airports.
Delta and United have also banned firearms in checked luggage on flights to the D.C. area from Jan. 16 through Jan. 23. And American Airlines is extending from Jan. 16 to Jan 21 a suspension of alcohol sales on flights to and from the D.C. area.
The opinions expressed in reader comments are those of the author only and do not reflect the opinions of The Seattle Times.