In the days following the storming of the U.S. Capitol on January 6, videos began popping up on social media showing some of the rioters being kicked off planes.
One TikTok video that received over 460,000 views shows a man tearfully ranting as he walked through an airport departure lounge, crying that “they” called him a “terrorist” and wanted to ruin his life. “I love every single one of you, but this is what they do to us,” the man screamed. “They kicked me off the plane.”
“People who broke into the Capitol Wednesday are now learning they are on No-Fly lists pending the full investigation. They are not happy about this,” read a tweet that included the TikTok video and has received over 20 million views. (Warning: The video includes profanity.)
Yesterday a spokesperson for American Airlines confirmed that the passenger in the video was kicked off a plane in Charlotte, North Carolina — not Washington, DC — for refusing to comply with the carrier’s mandated face-mask policy. It’s not clear whether the individual was banned from future American Airlines flights or even whether he had been in DC during the rioting.
Much of the confusion about no-fly lists (on social media, anyway) stems from the fact that there are two distinct types of these lists: the federal no-fly list and individual airlines’ own internal no-fly lists. The big clues that the crying TikTok passenger was not on the federal no-fly list was that he was filmed in a departure lounge and had been allowed to board the plane. Had he been on the federal no-fly list, he would not have received a boarding pass. He would have been stopped at the airport security checkpoint, and not allowed in the departure lounge let alone on a plane.
Airlines have full discretion to put passengers on their internal no-fly lists for violating any of their policies. In general, though, they are extremely tightlipped about the details of their lists, citing security issues and respect for passengers’ privacy.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, U.S. airlines have placed more than 2,000 people on their internal no-fly lists for refusing to comply with mandatory face-mask policies, according to reporting from ABC News.
The federal no-fly list is a different kettle of fish entirely. As explained in a recent TSA press release, it all begins with the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Database, also known as “the terrorist watchlist.” From the names on the watchlist, a subset of individuals will also be put on the federal no-fly list or the selectee list, which does not ban an individual from flying but flags him or her for additional airport security screening.
“This watch list prescreening, one of several important security measures in place to protect U.S. national and transportation security, takes place prior to the passenger’s arrival at the checkpoint,” per the TSA statement.
The details of the federal no-fly list are notoriously opaque, but it prohibits anyone who “may pose a threat to civil aviation or national security” from boarding a commercial aircraft. The FBI and TSA do not comment publicly on how many people are listed or why, generally citing classified or sensitive security information.
It’s clear that security is being ramped up considerably in the run-up to the inauguration. The TSA statement confirmed that the agency will maintain enhanced security at the three Washington DC-area airports.
Last weekend, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) warned travelers that unruly or violent behavior can have costly consequences. “Federal law prohibits you from physically assaulting or threatening to physically assault the crew, and anyone else, on an aircraft,” the FAA said in a tweet. “You could be subject to fines of up to $35K and imprisonment for such conduct.”
And yesterday, amid mounting pressure from multiple Congress members, the FBI publicly divulged for the first time that it is considering adding the individuals who stormed the Capitol to the no-fly list. “As for the no-fly list, we look at all tools and techniques that we possibly can use within the FBI and that’s something we are actively looking at,” said FBI Washington Field Office Assistant Director in Charge Steven D’Antuono at a news conference.
D’Antuono’s acknowledgement came hours after Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer sent a letter to FBI Director Christopher Wray, calling the attack “domestic terrorism” and the attackers “insurrectionists for the No-Fly List,” according to the Associated Press, which obtained the letter.
Schumer’s letter came five days after Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-MS), chair of the House Committee on Homeland Security, had made the same demand: “Given the heinous domestic terrorist attack on the U.S. Capitol yesterday, I am urging the Transportation Security Administration and the Federal Bureau of Investigation to use their authorities to add the names of all identified individuals involved in the attack to the federal No-Fly List and keep them off planes.”