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Three major US airlines are in something of a forgiving mood regarding passengers who violated face mask rules during the pandemic while a key US government agency vows to stay tough on bad behavior in the skies.
Delta Air Lines, United Airlines and American Airlines said they would now allow some passengers who were banned from their planes because of mask violations to return to their flight rosters – determined on a case-by-case basis.
The move comes after two dizzying days of rulings and countermoves on the federal mask mandate for public transportation. It started Monday when a federal judge struck down the mandate, setting off a chain reaction in Washington and the rest of the country.
By Wednesday evening, the Justice Department had filed an appeal to the ruling following a recommendation by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
With the mandate no longer in effect, at least temporarily, some major US airlines quickly dropped their mask requirements.
Now Delta, United and American are taking it one step further.
Fly with us again
Delta said Wednesday it will restore flight privileges for some passengers it banned for not following mask rules.
“At Delta, nothing is more important than the safety and security of our customers and our people. With masks now optional, Delta will restore flight privileges for customers on the mask non-compliance no-fly list only after each case is reviewed and each customer demonstrates an understanding of their expected behavior when flying with us,” the Atlanta-based company said in a statement.
“Any further disregard for the policies that keep us all safe will result in placement on Delta’s permanent no-fly list. Customers who demonstrated egregious behavior and are already on the permanent no-fly list remain barred from flying with Delta.”
In a similar move, United Airlines said it will allow passengers it banned for not following mask rules to fly again.
“On a case-by-case basis, we will allow some customers who were previously banned for failing to comply with mask-related rules to fly United again – after ensuring their commitment to follow all crewmember instructions on board,” the Chicago-based airline said in a statement.
American Airlines plans to follow suit, according to Nate Gatten, American’s chief government affairs officer.
American will also allow most passengers barred from flying for mask noncompliance “to resume travel at some point in time,” Gatten said in an earnings call on Thursday.
“In cases where an incident may have started with face mask noncompliance and escalated into anything involving something more serious, or certainly an assault on one of our key members or customers, those passengers are going to remain on our permanent internal refuse list and will never be allowed to travel with us again,” Gatten said.
Delta CEO Ed Bastian has been advocating for a national no-fly list specifically targeted to any passenger convicted of a crime because of an onboard disruption.
In a letter to US Attorney General Merrick Garland earlier this year, Bastian called for the “much-needed step of putting any person convicted of an on-board disruption on a national, comprehensive, unruly passenger ‘no-fly’ list that would bar that person from traveling on any commercial air carrier.”
However, most instances of unruly passenger behavior do not rise to the level of investigation or criminal prosecution.
So far this year, the Federal Aviation Administration has logged 1,233 reports of unruly passenger behavior. Nearly 65% of those cases were mask-related. But only 80 of the more than 1,200 reported cases have been referred to the FBI for criminal review.
The Transport Workers Union, the second-largest airline union in the United States, responded to the announcements with concern.
“For airlines to allow previously banned, unruly passengers back on their planes without a clear vetting process is irresponsible when they haven’t consulted with the union, our essential workers, or even outlined a plan of how they will protect them,” said TWU International President John Samuelsen in a statement.
FAA: Zero tolerance still in effect
Meanwhile, the FAA said Wednesday that it will make its zero tolerance policy against unruly passengers permanent.
“Behaving dangerously on a plane will cost you; that’s a promise,” said Billy Nolan, acting FAA administrator, in a statement.
“Unsafe behavior simply does not fly and keeping our Zero Tolerance policy will help us continue making progress to prevent and punish this behavior.”
The FAA implemented the policy on January 13, 2021, after a sharp rise in unruly passenger incidents. The FAA said that under the policy, it may issue fines to passengers for unruly behavior instead of warning letters or counseling. And cases can result in criminal investigations and charges.
The fines can run steep.
Two airplane passengers accused of hitting and biting crew and other passengers are facing a total of nearly $160,000 in fines, the FAA announced earlier in April.
The agency said the $81,950 and $77,272 fines are the two largest it has ever brought against an individual passenger for acting out on an aircraft.
Top image: A Boeing 737-932ER operated by Delta Airlines takes off from JFK Airport in Queens, New York. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
CNN’s Gregory Wallace, Chris Isidore, Forrest Brown and Marnie Hunter contributed to this report.