Airlines, airports beef up security ahead of Biden inauguration

Key Points
  • Airlines are planning additional safety measures after flight disruptions.
  • Passengers can expect additional airline personnel in the Washington, D.C., area.
  • Crews overnighting in Washington will stay at airport hotels, away from the city center.
A person walks at Reagan National Airport ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday in Arlington, U.S. November 25, 2020.
Hannah McKay | Reuters

Airlines and airports are stepping up security ahead of President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration next week, while the Federal Aviation Administration said it will crack down on unruly passengers with stiff fines.

The measures come in the wake of last week's violent pro-Trump riot at the U.S. Capitol, an FBI warning about the possibility of armed protests, and a series of politically motivated disturbances on flights and at airports.

"Reagan National and Dulles International, are operating normally, and passengers can expect to see an increased law enforcement presence from now through next week's presidential inauguration," said Christina Saull, a spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the three largest airports in the tri-state region, also said it is increasing police presence there. Los Angeles International Airport is "enhancing our operational procedures for the upcoming 2021 US Presidential inauguration," a spokeswoman told CNBC. "We are prepared to respond to any event that might occur at LAX."

United Airlines is increasing staffing at Washington, D.C.-area airports, including its Dulles, Virginia, hub and crews will overnight at airport hotels, away from the city center, through Jan. 21, said spokeswoman Leslie Scott. The Chicago-based airline is working with local and federal law enforcement to determine if other crew lodging changes are needed, such as in the case of demonstrations in state capitals, Scott said.

American Airlines is suspending alcohol service on flights to and from Washington D.C. and Baltimore from Jan. 16 through Jan. 21, a step it took following last week's riot. Pre-departure announcements will "further emphasize the importance of following crew member instructions" and wearing masks. The Fort Worth, Texas-based airline will also book crews staying in Washington overnight at airport hotels and provide private transportation to airports through Jan. 24.

Airline labor unions have expressed safety concerns after several incidents on board over the last eight days and following the pro-Trump riot.

Utah Republican Sen. Mitt Romney was heckled and called a traitor on a Washington, D.C.-bound Delta flight last week. On an American Airlines flight a passenger projected "Trump 2020" on the wall of a dimmed cabin as travelers got into a heated political argument, shouting and cursing at each other.

Alaska Airlines on Friday said it banned 14 passengers who took a flight from Washington, D.C., to Seattle and refused to wear masks, a requirement for air travel during the coronavirus pandemic, and were "rowdy, argumentative and harassed our crew members," spokesman Ray Lane said.

Also last week, one video on social media showed supporters of President Donald Trump calling Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a "traitor" at Reagan National Airport for confirming the November presidential election result.

FAA Administrator Steve Dickson on Wednesday signed an order effective through the end of March to fine unruly air travelers or those who assault, threaten or intimidate crews. Fines run up to $35,000.

"The FAA has seen a disturbing increase in incidents where airline passengers have disrupted flights with threatening or violent behavior," the agency said in a news release. "These incidents have stemmed both from passengers' refusals to wear masks and from recent violence at the U.S. Capitol."

Two key House Democrats earlier this week urged Dickson and the FAA to take further measures to ensure safety at airports. Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer on Tuesday called for members of the mob that stormed the Capitol to be placed on the federal "no fly" list.

Airlines operate their own lists of travelers who are banned from their planes and have added more than 2,100 people to those lists for not complying with pandemic-related mask policies, airlines said.

Airbnb on Wednesday said it was canceling and blocking new reservations in Washington, D.C., during inauguration week. The company said it has already identified "numerous" individuals who were either associated with hate groups or otherwise involved with the riot, and have banned them from Airbnb's platform.

Hyatt is planning to add safety and health protocols at its Washington D.C. area hotels, a spokesman said.

"Additional security measures could include but are not limited to increasing security personnel, limiting hotel access to only registered guests, adjusting staffing levels and engaging with local authorities," he said in an email.

Hilton said it has no plans to cancel customers' reservations in Washington but said it is waiving cancellation fees for inauguration week bookings.

"Our hotel teams, especially those in Washington DC, are very experienced and have a long history of successfully managing through major public events," said Hilton spokeswoman Meg Ryan. "They continue to review hotel safety and security procedures, and their preparation is well informed and mindful of current events."

FBI issued internal warning of 'war' at Capitol the day before the riots
FBI issued internal warning of 'war' at Capitol the day before the riots