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Flight crew and passengers restrain a man with zip ties, plastic wrap after threatening comments, feds say

A Frontier Airlines plane taxis past a Spirit Airlines aircraft at Indianapolis International Airport on Feb. 7. (Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg News)
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What started with concerning comments escalated to a cluster of bodies attempting to restrain an unruly passenger, federal officials said.

The Feb. 9 conundrum resulted in a diverted Frontier Airlines flight and federal charges against 37-year-old Michael Aaron Ganter, accused by prosecutors of threatening the crew and passengers during a flight from New York to Orlando.

Ganter’s arrest underscores a larger effort to prosecute disruptive and violent passengers. Interfering with the duties of a crew member violates federal law, but the pandemic has brought a spike in this behavior and prompted pressure from the airline industry for more drastic protective measures.

“Passengers who threaten violence in the close confines of a commercial aircraft put everyone in danger,” U.S. Attorney Michael Easley said in a news release. “My office will continue to aggressively prosecute federal crimes in the skies and ensure the safety of the flying public. Safe air travel is essential to our economy and keeping families connected. No passenger, flight crew, or flight attendant should have to fly in fear.”

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The commotion aboard Flight 1335 began about an hour into what was supposed to be a three-hour flight — when Ganter, waking up from his nap, made a slew of eyebrow-raising comments.

According to a criminal complaint signed by FBI special agent Craig W. Noyes, one passenger said Ganter claimed that he was being stuck with needles and that his DNA was being collected. Another said he claimed “he was from the Indian tribe ‘Slapahoe’ and that he was going to slap people and beat them to death.” More threats followed.

“Although others were targeted, Ganter directed some of his verbal threats to a small child and the child’s mother who were seated behind him,” the document said. “Ganter stated he would kill the child and beat the child’s mother in front of the child.”

National video reporter Hannah Jewell explains why Delta Air Lines is asking for a 'no-fly' list of unruly passengers. (Video: Casey Silvestri/The Washington Post)

The situation soon intensified.

Flight attendants, who were not identified in the document, moved away passengers seated near Ganter. Four crew members stopped their normal duties to tackle the situation. According to the complaint, they “requested assistance from able-bodied passengers” who then helped restrain the man by placing zip ties on his hands and using plastic wrap to bind his feet. But it took a bit of a struggle.

“One passenger stated Ganter threw a punch at him,” according to the criminal complaint. “Another passenger stated that as a result of the commotion, she was tossed into a window while attempting to get away from the scene.”

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Instead of heading to Orlando, the flight landed some 600 miles away at Raleigh-Durham International Airport in North Carolina — where airport officers took Ganter away, court documents said. He was taken to WakeMed in Raleigh for evaluation and arrested by FBI agents after his release.

Diana H. Pereira, a public defender assigned to Ganter, declined to comment for this report.

The incident comes at a turbulent time for the airline industry. As of Tuesday, there have been nearly 400 reports of unruly passenger airplane behavior this year — of which 255 were related to the federal mask mandate — according to the most recent data by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Last year closed with nearly 6,000 of such incidents — prompting 1,009 investigations, the largest recorded amount since 1995.

The agency cannot prosecute passengers for violent behavior, but it has sent 80 cases to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution. In January 2021, the FAA adopted a zero-tolerance policy to deal with the growing incidents of unruly behavior. Any passenger threatening the cabin crew or disrupting a flight now faces fines of up to $37,000 and up to 20 years of prison time.

But labor unions representing thousands of airline industry workers say more needs to be done.

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“Our flights are under attack by a small number of people and it has to stop,” Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-C.W.A. (AFA), said in a statement Tuesday. “Just this past week an out of control passenger tried to open aircraft doors and charge the flight deck. We’ve been punched, kicked, spit on, and sexually assaulted. This puts everyone at risk and disrupts the safety of flight, which is never acceptable”

According to a survey conducted by AFA — which represents nearly 50,000 workers at 17 airlines — 85 percent of the 5,000 respondents said they had dealt with unruly passengers in 2021. Some 17 percent reported experiencing a physical altercation.

When asked what they believed to be the causes behind the uptick in violent behavior, flight attendants said “multiple factors” — including mask compliance, alcohol, routine safety reminders, flight delays and cancellations — contributed to the incidents.

“This is not a ‘new normal’ we are willing to accept,” Nelson said. “We know the government, airlines, airports, and all stakeholders can take actions together to keep us safe and flying friendly.”