US airlines expand gun ban on flights to Washington area ahead of Biden inauguration

The airlines are bolstering security precautions following the Jan 6 storming of the US Capitol by supporters of President Donald Trump. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) - United States airlines are expanding a firearms ban on flights to the Washington area before President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration next Wednesday (Jan 20) as the nation's capital braces for potential disturbances.

Delta Air Lines on Friday followed United Airlines in extending a ban on guns in checked baggage to include Richmond, Virginia. Southwest Airlines joined American Airlines in announcing similar restrictions for flights going to three Washington-area airports.

"We have put in place heightened security - both seen and unseen - to ensure everyone's safety over the coming two weeks," Delta chief executive officer Ed Bastian told employees in a memo on Friday.

"Those who refuse to display basic civility to our people or their fellow travellers are not welcome on Delta."

The airlines are bolstering security precautions following the Jan 6 storming of the US Capitol by supporters of President Donald Trump. With Washington becoming a fortress, the Transportation Security Administration and the Federal Aviation Administration issued warnings in recent days against outbursts on flights following several episodes both before and after the mob assault on Congress.

The national aviation system's security focus on a single city is "unprecedented", said Mr Jeff Price, who owns Leading Edge Strategies, an airport-management training company, and has written a book on aviation security.

"The only thing that comes close to this was 9/11, and even then there weren't restrictions on checking firearms," he said.

"I don't think any airline wants to be the one responsible for flying in somebody who uses a firearm in any sort of attack during the inauguration."

The TSA is running risk assessments on hundreds of names to vet potential flyers in advance of the inauguration.

The agency's intelligence professionals are working "around the clock" to make sure that travellers undergo enhanced screening or are prevented from boarding if they pose a threat, TSA administrator David Pekoske said on Friday in a statement. There will also be more federal air marshals on certain flights.

The focus on aviation can only go so far. Thousands of the protesters on Jan 6 - including several of those arrested on weapons charges - came to Washington on buses or their own vehicles.

But airlines and aviation officials are stepping up their focus on security. Besides moving flight crews out of hotels in downtown Washington through Jan 24, American is taking similar precautions in state capitals, according to a labour union representing the company's flight attendants.

In addition, American's pilots will be asked to "conduct a thorough crew briefing to review security procedures and the handling of any potential threatening situations," the Association of Professional Flight Attendants told members in a message on Friday.

Disturbing increase

The FAA said it was stepping up enforcement on unruly passengers after what it called a "disturbing increase" in incidents following the US Capitol assault and fears that more disruptions could occur in the days ahead.

The agency said on Wednesday that it would forgo the usual warnings it gives to violators of federal laws that prohibit interference with an airline flight crew and move directly to seek penalties. People who physically assault or threaten members of flight crews or other passengers are subject to prison and fines as high as US$35,000 (S$46,500).

Representative Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat who is chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, and Representative John Katko of New York, the panel's highest ranking Republican, asked the TSA for a briefing on what actions it is taking in a letter earlier this week.

"To our knowledge, the federal government has not prevented a single insurrectionist from boarding an aircraft," they said in the letter. "Several have harassed and threatened to harm members of Congress, flight crew members, and the public while travelling."

Few passengers

Amid all the precautions, airlines are expecting only modest passenger loads. Presidential inaugurations are not large traffic events to begin with, and this year stands to be even more muted, given the recent turmoil, said Ms Leslie Scott, a spokesman for United.

With the coronavirus pandemic still keeping many travellers home, demand for flights at the three Washington-area airports was already weak after the Christmas-New Year's travel period ended, she added.

"Load factors were already low," she said, referring to an industry measure of how full a company's planes are. "And we have seen them decreasing in the last several days.

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