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Every day, the more than 2.6 million people who fly through US airports are able to do so with relative ease.
But, for some, air travel in and out of the United States is a no-go.
You’ve probably heard of the no-fly list — a list compiled by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), restricting certain individuals from “boarding an aircraft when flying within, to, from and over the United States.” The US government doesn’t disclose up-to-date tallies of how many people are on it. Estimates vary widely. A 2014 report in The Intercept put the number at 47,000; a 2016 press release from Sen. Dianne Feinstein put the number at 81,000.
In addition to the government’s list, US-based airlines have their own lists of passengers who are banned from flying. Their lists may be more secretive than the government’s. When TPG reached out for comment, the major US carriers were reluctant to talk about their “banned passengers” lists or how they’re enforced.
“The safety and security of our employees and customers is our top priority,” says Southwest Airlines in an email response. “We don’t discuss our security protocols due to the sensitive nature of the subject matter.”
However, there have been enough public incidents, viral stories and statements from the airlines to give us an idea of what can land you on a government or airline no-fly list.
The US government’s no-fly list was established after the 9/11 attacks and is culled from the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Database (aka the TSDB, or “the watchlist”). The FBI describes the TSDB as a list of those “who are known to be or reasonably suspected of being involved in terrorist activities.” For someone to be added to the official no-fly list, the FBI says “there must be credible information demonstrating that the individual presents a threat of committing an act of terrorism with respect to an aircraft, the homeland, U.S. facilities or interests abroad, or is a threat of engaging in or conducting a violent act of terrorism and is operationally capable of doing so.”
While law enforcement has praised the no-fly list as a valuable security measure that keeps dangerous people off airplanes, there have been numerous reports that people are placed on the list by mistake, often for having the same name as a terror suspect. A report by “60 Minutes” in 2007 brought together a group of men named Robert Johnson. All of them said they had trouble boarding airplanes. Turns out, “Robert Johnson” was also the known alias of a man convicted of a bombing plot in Canada.
For those who feel they are mistakenly included on the US government’s no-fly list, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has set up the DHS Traveler Redress Inquiry Program (DHS TRIP). The department reviews applications and assigns applicants a record identifier, or Redress Control Number, that the traveler can use to book travel once their case is resolved. In addition to those on the no-fly list, people who are unfairly flagged for additional security can use DHS TRIP, as TPG’s Brian Kelly attempted with less-than-immediate results in 2015.
In addition to suspected terrorist activities, fighting can land you on an airline’s no-fly list. Viral video sensation Danielle Bregoli of “Cash Me Outside” fame reportedly earned a lifetime ban from Spirit Airlines for punching a passenger over a dispute with Bregoli’s mother. The passenger and Bregoli’s mom also reportedly wound up on Spirit’s banned list. In 2007, Snoop Dogg reportedly was banned from British Airways for a brawl that erupted at London Heathrow (LHR). A judge later cleared Snoop of responsibility for that brawl, but it’s unclear if Snoop is still in British Airways’, ahem, dogg-house.
3. Sexual assault
In-flight sexual assault, a problem that’s gotten additional attention in recent years, has airlines cracking down in a variety of ways, including lifetime bans. United Airlines took the rare step of publicly announcing a lifetime ban for Vijaykumar Krishnappa after he pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting a teenage girl on a United flight from Seattle (SEA) to Newark (EWR) in 2017. He served 90 days in federal prison and United imposed an even longer sanction, announcing that “the perpetrator has been permanently banned from flying United.” (A lawsuit against the airline accuses its flight attendants of not adequately responding to the assault.)
4. Disturbing the peace
Causing a commotion is a great way to earn a lifetime ban — especially if your misbehavior makes news. A Delta Air Lines passenger was caught on video yelling profane political comments during a flight after the 2016 election. “This individual displayed behavior that was loud, rude and disrespectful to his fellow customers,” Ed Bastian, Delta’s CEO, said in a memo to his employees. “He will never again be allowed on a Delta plane.” An Australian man is also banned for life on all flights on Jetstar as well as its parent company, Qantas. His offense: running onto the tarmac at Australia’s Melbourne International Airport (MEL) and trying to pry open an airplane door.
5. Misbehaving on Jet2 airlines
British discount carrier Jet2 has frequently made headlines for banning passengers for life. In 2015, Jet2 announced a lifetime ban against a 21-year-old passenger for using “foul and abusive language” toward the cabin crew during a flight from Glasgow International Airport (GLA) to Ibiza Airport (IBZ). That same year, the airline banned a group of Scottish tourists that Jet2 accused of using bad language against the crew, spitting in a flight attendant’s face, bringing alcohol on board, singing and dancing down the aisle, and other examples of inflight misbehavior en route from Glasgow to Turkey. Last year, the airline issued yet another lifetime ban, this one to a passenger whose antics — which reportedly included excessive drinking, verbally abusive language, and playing with a blow-up sex doll — forced an emergency landing during a flight from Belfast to Ibiza. (Perhaps not coincidentally, a survey by a UK-based consumer site ranked Jet2 fifth on its list of airlines with the worst-behaved passengers.)
The Bottom Line
Staying off a no-fly list is best accomplished by good behavior. After all, being a decent person can take you a long way when it comes to air travel. But, should you suspect that you’ve been mistakenly flagged, the good news is that there are ways of addressing the issue.
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