The text messages were complimentary at first. Then, a little strange. And then, chilling.
Ashley Barno was in a boarding area at San Diego International Airport, awaiting a Chicago-bound flight, when a message from an unfamiliar number flashed across her iPhone screen, saying hello and asking how she was doing.
The person then added, “Btw I must tell you that you are gorgeous!”
Barno thanked the sender for his flattery and asked again for his name. How had he gotten her number, she asked, and why was he texting her?
“You guess!!” he told her, adding that he worked for American Airlines, which was operating the flight Barno was waiting to board.
“I just saw you at the airport again!” he wrote, telling her in a later message: “you are looking very gorgeous in grey top today!!”
Barno, clad in a gray shirt, looked around the gate area, glancing over her shoulder. She was scared.
The disturbing encounter, which occurred in April and unfolded over more than 100 text messages that were later shared with The Washington Post, spurred a lawsuit against the airline and a now-former employee over allegations of negligent hiring, sexual harassment and stalking. The interaction has left Barno reeling more than eight months later, nervous when she travels and sometimes fearful she’s being watched, her attorney, Joseph Samo, said in an interview.
American Airlines did not answer specific questions about the allegations or the case, but company spokesman Joshua Freed confirmed the man was employed by American at the time, though said he wasn’t on duty during the alleged harassment.
“The employee involved in the complaint is no longer employed at American Airlines," Freed wrote. "American Airlines takes the privacy and safety of our customers seriously. We investigated the allegations and took appropriate action.”
Barno says the messages continued even after she got on the plane.
“This is weird,” she wrote to him.
Then she learned he was on board, too.
The man, who eventually identified himself as “Ahmad,” told Barno he saw her get onto the plane, and said he watched silently as she passed his aisle 15 seat.
He told her he’d be able to get her a better seat.
“You want to sit next to me?” he wrote.
He asked, twice, “Whats ur seat number?”
He told Barno he’d like to “chat the whole flight” and then sent another plea: “Will you join me?? I have two seats open next to me!”
During their back-and-forth, the sender initially claimed that Barno had given him her phone number. But, when she pressed him, he wrote, “Honestly I got it from ur bagtag.”
Barno, whose luggage was affixed with a tag listing her name, number and address, responded, “Not ok! Not cool.”
“Leave me alone,” she added.
The man then sent her a barrage of 10 messages, writing that “Friendship with me will be very beneficial for you!!”
“I can always give you good seats, access to the lounges and free flights too!! You can think about it!” he wrote, adding in later messages, “Just looking for one chance to prove my self!! I will be very respectful to you always.”
“I think its a NO then,” he wrote when she didn’t reply, attaching an animated picture of a man holding a flower, with script reading “Forgive Me?” below.
Three and a half hours later, he sent three more messages:
“How was your flight?”
“Chicago is your final destination?”
While the plane was in the air, Samo said his client flagged down a flight attendant and told her about the messages she was receiving, apparently from a man seated several rows in front of her. Barno was in tears and the flight attendant was kind, Samo said, making sure the two were seated in different parts of the plane and checking in frequently.
When they touched down at Chicago O’Hare International Airport, what looked to be security guards escorted the man off the plane, Samo said. At one point, the flight attendant told Barno that this wasn’t “the first time he’s done something like this,” Samo said.
Freed declined to comment on past allegations against the former American Airlines employee, citing the impending litigation. But the lawsuit alleges that the company “knew of its employee’s propensity to inappropriately contact its customers yet continued to retain him as an employee.
“American Airlines did not do a sufficient job in hiring and supervising employees to keep its customers safe from sexual harassment and stalking,” states the complaint, which was filed last week in a San Diego division of California Superior Court.
It says the man “did not stop contacting her for a long period of time, and also sent her sexually-suggestive images.
Barno said she tried contacting American Airlines for months, hiring Samo to reach out on her behalf. She wanted assurances that the airline had disciplined the man and taken steps to assure the same thing doesn’t happen to someone else. But the company wasn’t responsive, Samo said, and no one told her the man was no longer employed there.
“That added a lot of insult to injury,” he said.
Since the incident, Barno has had trouble sleeping, eating and socializing, according to the lawsuit.
In an interview with NBC 7 in San Diego, Barno said she was terrified when she realized they were on the same flight: “Just knowing that he knew what I looked like, and that we were in an enclosed plane and that there’s no way out, like really, really scared me."