No-fly lists, security crackdown: Chaos in DC leads to big changes in travel ahead of the inauguration
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Editor’s note: This post has been updated with new information.
There are major changes in the travel industry ahead of President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20, 2021, as the FBI is warning of potential attacks on Washington, D.C., and statues and federal buildings across the country, organized by right-wing extremist groups.
There are growing calls to put people who participated in the riot at the U.S. Capitol, which left five people dead, on no-fly lists. According to the Associated Press, New York Senator and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer sent a letter to FBI Director Christopher Wray calling the attack on the Capitol “domestic terrorism” and said those people should be labeled as “insurrectionists for the [No Fly List].”
Major airlines have banned checked firearms on flights to Washington, D.C.-area airports around the inauguration, and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is also cracking down on violent, unruly flyers with penalties such as fines up to $35,000 and jail time for passengers who assault or threaten crew members or other passengers.
And the temporary security measures extend far beyond air travel.
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On Jan. 14, The Washington Post reported the entire National Mall will be closed on Inauguration Day. The Post, quoting two anonymous sources, wrote, “The move is significant because the Mall has been the traditional site where much of the general public has gathered to view the inauguration at the Capitol in person and on large jumbotrons.”
The day prior, Airbnb and Hotel Tonight canceled all bookings around the dates of the inauguration. Other hotels in the nation’s capital may follow suit.
In light of the chaos and violence, airlines and hotels are making other major changes in the lead-up to Inauguration Day.
Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst and president of Atmosphere Research said, “What we’ve seen airlines do are smart steps to make sure their employees and passengers are safe. That all goes to [airlines’] core value of safety first.”
Airlines, airports and amtrak crack down
Social media was full of disturbing reports about the behavior of passengers on several flights carrying protestors to and from the riot in Washington, D.C.
People were refusing to wear masks, demanding fellow passengers pledge their support for President Trump, chanting pro-Trump messages and verbally abusing other passengers. Former presidential candidate and Utah Sen. Mitt Romney was reportedly accosted at an airport and on his flight to Washington, D.C. the day before the attack.
Sara Nelson, the international president of the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA) union, is asking for any passengers involved in the riots to be banned.
A United spokesman told Reuters, “We echo the sentiments of AFA that our first priority must be the safety and security of our passengers and crew.”
In response to these incidents and to the violence on Capitol Hill, airlines are announcing new rules and security measures on some flights and airports in the area.
In a statement to union members, Association of Professional Flight Attendants president Julie Hedrick told her members they were aware of incidents where crew “were forced to confront passengers exhibiting politically motivated aggression towards other passengers and crew.”
Hedrick said in a statement:
“As safety professionals, we are well trained in handling inflight disruptions, but we should never find ourselves having to deal with politically motivated verbal or physical altercations onboard. Remain extra vigilant on flights departing from the Washington, D.C. area for the next few days, and involve your fellow crewmembers if you have safety concerns.”
American Airlines banned alcohol on flights to and from Washington last week, and now says there will be no alcohol on flights to and from D.C.-area airports between Jan. 16 and Jan. 21, 2021. It also says no crew will stay at downtown hotels and will get private transportation to and from the airports in the area.
“I’m impressed United was able to adjust its crew hotel accommodations so quickly so its employees were not in areas where … rioting occurred,” Harteveldt told TPG, adding that “American’s decision not to cater alcohol is a prudent decision. You don’t want to do anything that is going to intentionally or unintentionally put safety at risk.”
Airlines are also beefing up security.
Reuters reported that both United and American Airlines have increased staffing at D.C.-area airports and were working with local law enforcement to provide extra security. They have also moved crews out of downtown Washington hotels. Alaska Airlines crew members are being advised to avoid the city center.
American Airlines spokesman Andrew Trull told NBC News, “We are working closely with local law enforcement and airport authority partners to ensure the safety of our customers and team members on the ground and in the air.”
Skift reporter (and former TPG reporter) Ned Russell reported that Delta Air Lines told staff in a security update, “We are increasing security efforts, both seen and unseen, at DCA, IAD and BWI, and are monitoring the situation in other locations to keep you and our customers safe.”
Travelers flying into D.C. have reported on social media having their boarding passes checked multiple times, an enhanced Homeland Security presence, random bag searches and other instances of tightened security.
Even travelers riding the rails along the Northeast may experience heightened security and other changes.
In an advisory sent to customers over the weekend, Amtrak warned passengers that there will be no Northeast Regional service south of Washington (including Virginia stations) on Jan. 19 and Jan. 20.
“After last week’s violent attack on the U.S. Capitol,” the e-mail read, “we are taking extra steps to continue ensuring the safety of our employees and customers in Washington, D.C. and across our network as we prepare for the [inauguration].”
Amtrak said it will limit ticket sales, require masks to be worn at all times, increase police enforcement, and may remove or ban any customers who refuse to comply with its policies. Travelers should also expect to see additional Amtrak Police officers on trains and in stations.
Hotels and vacation rentals close and take precautions
Airbnb announced on Wednesday, Jan. 13 that, in light of official guidance, it will cancel all existing reservations and prevent any new reservations in the Washington, D.C. metro area around Inauguration Day.
Airbnb will refund travelers who had bookings in full and said it will reimburse hosts who had stays booked during the inauguration period.
Hotel Tonight, a booking app now owned by Airbnb, is following its parent company’s lead and will cancel bookings around the inauguration and won’t take any more reservations in the area.
In general, hotels are staying open during the inauguration (Eaton DC, a downtown property, is an exception – it is suspending hotel operations from Jan. 15 through Jan. 21). According to Business Insider, hotels are choosing instead to restrict access to hotel guests only and enhancing security. Some are urging only essential travelers to come to the area.
Following the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol, hotels in downtown Washington were filled with Trump supporters who were not following local COVID-19 restrictions or health guidelines, though there have been no reports of violence in hotels.
Washington has strict rules in place for visitors, which rioters appeared to flout. Visitors are supposed to have a negative COVID-19 test taken within three days of travel and to quarantine on arrival, and get another test after three days in the city.
Some area hotels did close ahead of the planned protest, such as the downtown Hotel Harrington which closed from Jan. 4 to Jan. 6 in anticipation of the protests. The hotel has become a known gathering place for the white supremacist hate group Proud Boys, according to The Washington Post.
Enhanced security for Inauguration Day
President-elect Joe Biden is set to be sworn in on Jan. 20 in a ceremony that will be mostly virtual for the first time in history.
NBC News reported that the National Guard will be mobilized in Washington for the next 30 days to prevent a repeat of the type of violence seen during the attack on the U.S. Capitol. The troops are also set to monitor air traffic control points to help enforce a secure perimeter around the Capitol building.
“There are perimeter rules for flying around Washington,” Harteveldt told TPG. “My interpretation of that is that the National Guard will be eyes-on-the-ground looking up to make sure an airplane doesn’t violate the perimeter rule.”
More than 10,000 National Guard troops will be deployed to the capital for the inauguration, with 5,000 more available if needed.
The Washington Monument will be shut down until after the inauguration, according to USA Today, and Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser — who complained her calls for extra security went unheeded in the lead-up to the chaos — is ordering a major security crackdown in the metro area. The pause on various activities goes until Jan. 22. Bowser is asking the public to stay away.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam have also asked people not to travel to the Washington, D.C.-metro area for the inauguration.
When President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris are sworn in before an extremely small crowd, due to both security and health concerns, social distancing and masks will be required. After the ceremony, there will be a “Pass in Review” which, according to The New York Times, is meant to reflect a peaceful transfer of power.
Then comes a presidential escort including all branches of the U.S. military. It’s usually a 1.5-mile drive from the inauguration ceremony at the Capitol to the White House, with hundreds of thousands of people gathering to witness the spectacle. This year, however, the traditional procession will be shortened to just one city block with no spectators.
The traditional parade will be a virtual affair instead. In fact, most of the normal transition events will be online-only this year. This is not because of the violence in Washington, but because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and public safety.
President-elect Biden said in December that Americans should expect, “something that is closer to what the convention was like than a typical inauguration.”
Plans for the inauguration could change even more in the remaining days before the inauguration. Harteveldt told TPG that, at the very least, passengers and visitors will face extraordinary security measures.
He said many leaders will be headed to Washington, D.C., and ” … traveling into and out of Washington will be rather tense, especially for people who had no involvement and don’t want to be wrapped up in the emotions of the people who were rioting.”
Additional reporting by Melanie Lieberman.
Featured image of the U.S. Capitol Jan. 7, 2021, in Washington, D.C. by Joe Raedle/Getty Images
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