>>Neil Vigdor, The New York Times
Published: 2021-08-04 10:01:29 BdST
Part of the altercation was caught on video by other passengers, who jeered as the man was restrained for the remainder of Flight 2289, which left Philadelphia at 10:41 pm Eastern time Saturday and landed 2 hours and 37 minutes later.
Frontier Airlines said in an initial statement Tuesday that the flight attendants would be “relieved of flying” while it investigated, which drew sharp criticism from the Association of Flight Attendants, the nation’s largest flight attendants union. Later Tuesday, the airline said that paid leave was in line with “an event of this nature.”
The Association of Flight Attendants said that the encounter was emblematic of the hostilities faced by airline crews since the loosening of travel restrictions that had been put in place because of the coronavirus pandemic. It came amid a surge of reports filed by airlines with the Federal Aviation Administration about unruly passengers, who have faced steep fines for disruptions.
In one video, which was obtained by several television stations and received widespread attention online, the man, who police said had been drinking, repeatedly cursed at other passengers and at the crew. He said that his parents were worth “2 million goddamn dollars.”
The Miami-Dade Police Department identified the man as Maxwell Berry, 22, of Norwalk, Ohio, who it said in a criminal complaint had been charged with three misdemeanour counts of battery.
It was not immediately clear if Berry had a lawyer. Messages left by phone at his family’s home in Ohio and by email Tuesday were not answered.
Berry was booked into the Miami-Dade Corrections and Rehabilitation Department on Sunday and was released later that day. Court date information was not immediately available from the department.
The trouble began when Berry ordered his third alcoholic beverage of the flight and brushed his empty cup against a flight attendant’s backside, according to the criminal complaint, which said that the flight attendant told him “don’t touch me.”
Berry, who had been sitting in seat 28D, then emerged from the bathroom shirtless after spilling his drink, prompting a flight attendant to tell him that he needed to be fully dressed, the complaint said. The flight attendant helped him get a shirt out of his carry-on luggage, and Berry walked around the cabin for about 15 minutes.
That’s when he groped the breasts of another flight attendant, who told him not to touch her and to sit down, officials said. In the criminal complaint, officers wrote that Berry later put his arms around the same two flight attendants and groped their breasts.
When a male flight attendant approached and asked him several times to calm down, officers said, Berry punched him in the face with a closed fist.
Sara Nelson, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants, said in a statement Tuesday that the encounter was one of the worst disruptions experienced by airline crews this year.
“A drunk and irate passenger verbally, physically, and sexually assaulted multiple members of the crew,” Nelson said. “When he refused to comply after multiple attempts to de-escalate, the crew was forced to restrain the passenger with the tools available to them onboard. We are supporting the crew.”
In their complaint, officers said that several other passengers had helped to restrain Berry, whom the video showed being secured to a seat by a male crew member with what appeared to be packing tape. A seatbelt extender was also used as a restraint, the police said. Some other passengers laughed and pulled out their cellphone cameras to record the scene.
“Frontier Airlines maintains the utmost value, respect, concern and support for all of our flight attendants, including those who were assaulted on this flight,” the Denver-based carrier said. “We are supporting the needs of these team members and are working with law enforcement to fully support the prosecution of the passenger involved.”
But the flight attendants union criticised the airline’s response.
“Management suspended the crew as a knee-jerk reaction to a short video clip that did not show the full incident,” said Nelson, the union’s president. “Management should be supporting the crew at this time, not suspending them.”
Frontier did not answer questions about the airline’s policies and procedures for restraining unruly passengers, including whether tape had been approved for that purpose.
In the criminal complaint, the arresting officers said that they had referred the matter to the FBI, but that it had declined to pursue federal felony charges against Berry.
Berry’s legal problems may be just beginning, though.
The FAA has fined several passengers tens of thousands of dollars this year for clashing with airline crews over mask requirements and other safety instructions. This year, the agency imposed a zero-tolerance policy for interfering with or assaulting flight attendants that carries a fine of up to $35,000 and possible jail time.
An FAA spokesperson said in an email Tuesday that the agency investigates all reports of unruly passengers, but that it could not comment on individual cases.
“Cabin crews are responsible for deciding how to respond to unruly-passenger incidents,” said the spokesperson, Ian Gregor.
Berry graduated in May from Ohio Wesleyan University, where he received a values in action award from the Greek life community for being a “perfect role model” and for leading “the fight to dismantle fraternity stereotypes.” The university posted a Zoom video of the presentation.
“Ohio Wesleyan is saddened to learn of this situation with one of our graduates,” Cole Hatcher, a spokesperson for the university, said in an email Tuesday. “The case does not involve the university, and the incidents depicted do not reflect Ohio Wesleyan’s values.”
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