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Flight attendant suffers broken bones in ‘one of the worst displays of unruly behavior’ in the skies

The incident prompted the pilots to divert the flight to Denver, where a passenger was temporarily detained

An American Airlines plane takes off from Los Angeles International Airport. (Mike Blake/Reuters)
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(Update: California man charged in assault on American Airlines flight attendant)

A flight attendant for American Airlines suffered broken bones in her face and had to be hospitalized after a passenger allegedly attacked her Wednesday in an incident the company’s chief executive called “one of the worst displays of unruly behavior we’ve ever witnessed.”

The incident occurred on a flight from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport to John Wayne Airport in Orange County, Calif. It prompted the pilots to divert the flight to Denver, where the passenger was temporarily detained.

The flight attendant apparently bumped the passenger while moving through the first-class cabin, according to Julie Hedrick, president of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, which represents those who fly for American Airlines. The flight attendant apologized, but the passenger left his seat, confronted her as she stood in the aircraft’s galley, then punched her in the face, Hedrick said.

Unruly passengers are straining the system for keeping passengers safe in the sky

Hedrick said the flight attendant was taken to a hospital for treatment of broken bones in her face. She was later released.

The Post spoke to experts who broke down the psychology behind coronavirus-related outbursts and how to act when confronted by one. (Video: Sarah Parnass, John Farrell/The Washington Post)

The incident echoed one from earlier this year in which a Southwest Airlines flight attendant lost several teeth after a passenger allegedly punched her in the face. The attacks come on the heels of an increase in incidents in which passengers have shouted obscenities, pushed and shoved flight attendants, harassed other passengers or even attempted to open the cockpit door.

Hedrick said problem passengers are not a new phenomenon, but recent incidents have put flight attendants increasingly on edge. The Federal Aviation Administration, which is charged with enforcing rules on airplanes, has seen a sixfold increase over two years in its investigations of unruly passengers.

“We’ve never had passengers assault us like this,” Hedrick said. “I think for flight attendants going to work today, the mental exhaustion of ‘what am I going to be dealing with?’ — you just don’t know what’s going to happen on your flight today.”

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Hedrick said the number of incidents involving unruly passengers has declined from peaks during the summer. Even so, she said, “it doesn’t matter when something like this happens.”

In a strongly worded video message on Instagram, American Airlines chief executive Doug Parker said the carrier would push to have the passenger “prosecuted to the fullest extent possible.” He said the person would be banned from traveling on American.

“This type of behavior has to stop,” Parker said, adding that the airline also is working with the FAA, which is authorized to levy fines of up to $50,000 in such incidents.

The number of airline passengers cited for what the FAA terms “unruly behavior” has skyrocketed during the coronavirus pandemic. Some of the confrontations are fueled by disagreements over federal requirements that passengers wear masks when boarding aircraft. According to the FAA, of nearly 5,000 reports of unruly behavior this year, more than 3,500 involve disputes over masks. Others have involved alcohol, prompting some airlines to temporarily suspend sales.

In January, the agency implemented a “zero-tolerance” policy for bad behavior on flights. According to its most recent figures, the FAA is investigating 923 incidents and has begun enforcement action in 216 of those. In 2019, when record numbers of people were traveling, the FAA investigated 146 cases of unruly behavior among passengers.

A Southwest flight attendant lost two teeth after being assaulted on a flight. The passenger was arrested.

Hedrick said there is no indication that the incident on Wednesday involved a dispute over masks. She said it also is not clear whether alcohol may have been a factor. American is among several carriers that have limited alcohol sales on domestic flights. The carrier does offer alcohol in its first-class cabins.

Denver International Airport officials referred calls to the local office of the FBI, which is looking into the incident. In his video message, Parker said the passenger had been arrested. The FBI office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Hedrick said the union also is looking into an incident that occurred Wednesday in Honolulu. During the incident, a passenger allegedly spit at and slapped a flight attendant while exiting an airplane.

She said her union and others continue to push for a federal “no-fly” list that would bar such passengers from flying. Airlines maintain their own “no-fly” lists, but those are not shared among carriers. Hedrick said aviation workers also are pushing for increased police presence and more follow-up on what happens to passengers who are arrested.

“It’s not just the masks,” Hedrick said. “Our passengers have changed. Their behavior on our flights, the safety of our flight attendants, the safety of our passengers — every day is being threatened here.”