Mask Mandates

Lifting the Mask Mandate for Air Travel Would Do a Lot More To Cut Down on Unruly Passengers Than an Expanded No-Fly List

Delta CEO Ed Bastian asked U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland to create a special no-fly list for passengers convicted of creating onboard disruptions.


Airline executives are asking the federal government to expand its no-fly list to include unruly passengers rather than repeal the masking rules that are making so many passengers unruly in the first place.

Over the weekend, media outlets reported on a Thursday-dated letter sent by Delta CEO Ed Bastian asking U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland to adopt a "zero tolerance" policy toward in-flight disruption. Specifically, Bastian asked that passengers convicted of disruption onboard a flight be added to a national, comprehensive, unruly passenger "no-fly" list that would bar them from flying on any commercial airline.

"This action will help prevent future incidents and serve as a strong symbol of the consequences of not complying with crew member instructions on commercial aircraft," wrote Bastian, according to a copy of the letter posted by travel website The Points Guy.

That would be a pretty severe sanction. The federal no-fly list is, as Reason's C.J. Ciaramella described it, "a civil liberties nightmare: secretive and nearly impossible to challenge."

Once placed on the list, it's exceedingly difficult to have one's name removed from it—even for people who never should have been added in the first place.

The massive expansion of the federal no-fly list in the wake of 9/11 saw people added because of mistaken identities, clerical errors, or baseless suspicion of terrorism from federal authorities. One person who was added to the list because of a clerical error spent a decade trying to reclaim her right to fly.

Creating a new no-fly list to cover "unruly passengers" could ensnare a lot more people, particularly in an age of mask mandates. Bastian said in his letter that Delta had placed 1,900 people on its own no-fly list for not complying with masking requirements. Some 4,290 of the 5,981 unruly passenger incidents reported to the Federal Aviation Administration last year were mask-related.

Squabbles between passengers and flight attendants over masks also appear to be driving a huge increase in FAA enforcement actions. The agency reports unruly passenger investigations rose from 183 in 2020 to 1,099 in 2021, which resulted in 350 "enforcement actions" being initiated.

The FAA doesn't have the ability to bring criminal charges against people. Because Bastian's letter only asked that people "convicted" of disruptive behavior be barred from flying commercially, it's possible the number of people subject to the unruly passenger no-fly list would be smaller and come with some measure of due process.

Civil liberties advocates are still sounding the alarm about Delta's latest proposal.

"Generally, we think it's a bad idea," Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union, told NPR. "Our experience with government watch lists and ban lists has not been a good one."

Perhaps an easier, less authoritarian solution would be to just lift the existing federal requirement that people wear masks on planes.

In almost all of the country, one is allowed to sit maskless for hours drinking in a crowded bar or watching a movie in a theater. If that behavior is allowed, it's hard to see the reasoning behind stricter masking requirements aboard well-ventilated airplanes where the risk of COVID-19 transmission is low.

The long hours spent aboard planes or in airports, where face coverings are also mandated, make masking requirements all the more annoying and burdensome. That's probably why masks are the immediate cause of so many in-flight altercations.

That certainly doesn't excuse any individual passenger's violent behavior, but it does suggest ending mask mandates would be a pretty straightforward means of preventing it.