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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Woman sentenced 4 months for disrupting flight in spat over alleged slur

A New York woman flying first class on American Airlines admitted to cursing at a passenger and intimidating a flight attendant

(Alan Diaz/Associated Press)
4 min

A New York woman was sentenced to four months in federal prison for disruptive behavior that led an American Airlines flight to be diverted last year. An indictment accused her of assaulting a fellow passenger and intimidating a flight attendant, and Arizona police said at the time she had used a racial slur and spat on a passenger who confronted her in her first-class seat.

Kelly Pichardo, 32, of the Bronx, pleaded guilty to interfering with a flight crew and will serve 36 months of supervised release following her prison term, the Justice Department announced Friday. She will also have to pay American Airlines $9,123 in restitution.

Amid a spike in misbehavior among air travelers last year, the “unruly and intimidating behavior” of Pichardo and her friend, Leeza Rodriguez, caused the pilot on a Feb. 24, 2021, flight between Dallas and Los Angeles to stop in Phoenix so the women could be removed. Rodriguez also pleaded guilty to interfering with a flight crew and is scheduled to be sentenced Nov. 7.

An explanation of the ‘no-fly’ list and unruly airline passengers

“There is a line between boorish behavior on an airplane and criminal activity, and the defendant clearly crossed it,” Gary Restaino, the U.S. attorney for the district of Arizona, said in a news release. “First class passengers are not immune from prosecution: defendant’s verbal and physical intimidation disrupted the travel of passengers and crew alike.”

Following the 2021 incident, Phoenix police told the Arizona Republic that passengers reported the two women were using racial slurs and said Pichardo spat at a man who confronted them, striking his hand to prevent him from recording with his phone.

In a plea agreement obtained by The Washington Post, Pichardo admitted to “yelling and cursing” at another passenger and that she “knowingly intimidated” a male flight attendant who tried to step in. Police arrested the two women when the plane landed in Phoenix.

‘Homophobic’ passenger arrested in flight attendant assault

A sentencing memo submitted by Pichardo’s public defenders in August argues she should receive no prison time, saying that a history of mental illness and sexual abuse contributed to her behavior. The memo claims that Pichardo’s friend used a variation of the n-word in conversation after a Black passenger seated behind them had attempted to flirt with the friend. The conflict escalated, the memo says, after the Black passenger touched Pichardo’s shoulder and told her not to use that word.

An American Airlines spokesperson told the Republic that the behavior was “disturbing and unacceptable” and that the women had been placed on an internal “no-fly” list pending further investigation.

Unruly passenger incidents spiked in 2021, with the Federal Aviation Administration receiving nearly 6,000 complaints, including 1,099 that led to an investigation. In 2019, before the pandemic, only 146 such incidents were investigated.

While many of those incidents involved passengers refusing to wear masks, experts said pandemic-related stress and politics played a role in the uptick.

Airlines report an unprecedented rise in disruptive passengers

The FAA cracked down on unruly behavior in response, levying record fines and imposing a zero-tolerance policy, which has since been made permanent.

The rate of complaints has fallen in 2022, especially after a judge struck down the Biden administration’s mask mandate for public transportation in April. Since the week ending in April 24, the average number of weekly complaints has remained below the figure for the fourth quarter of 2020, before the federal order mandating masks on transportation went into effect.

This year through Sept. 6, the FAA had received 1,918 complaints, which sparked 663 investigations and 450 enforcement actions, according to the agency database.

Restaino wrote in a July sentencing memo to the judge that a four-month sentence would “provide a general deterrent for the greater public to not act unruly on airplanes.”

“This is incredibly important now, with an uptick in these incidents over the past year,” he wrote. “A stronger sentence in this case will foster a respect of the law in not only the Defendant, but also the general public.”