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Illustration by Security Management

Latest Air Rage Incident: Passenger Punches American Airlines Flight Attendant  in the Face

On 1 November, Brian Hsu was charged by the U.S. attorney’s office in Colorado for his involvement in an incident that left a flight attendant with broken facial bones.  

On 27 October, Hsu, a passenger on the American Airlines flight, allegedly attacked a flight attendant, punching her in the face. The in-air attack happened on a plane from JFK International Airport heading to the John Wayne Airport in Orange County, California. Because of the incident, the pilots diverted the flight to Denver, Colorado. 

According to reports, the altercation began when Hsu and the flight attendant bumped into each other as she moved through the aisle while Hsu was standing to stretch. Although the flight attendant apologized to Hsu, 20, he left his seat, confronted her, and then allegedly assaulted her. Witness statements said that Hsu was ordered by another flight attendant to take his seat, and when he did, passengers and flight crew restrained him.  

The flight attendant was treated at a Denver hospital for her injuries and then released.  

Hsu was returning home after undergoing brain surgery in Rhode Island to reconstruct part of his skull, which was damaged when he was assaulted in New York City in 2020. He claimed that the initial injury had also caused psychological damage and sensitivity to certain sounds. 

Doug Parker, chief executive for American Airlines, said in a social media message that the passenger would be banned from traveling on the airline, that the company would support prosecuting him, and that American Airlines is cooperating with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The FAA can impose fines of up to $50,000 for such incidents. 

The criminal complaint filed by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) against Hsu is for “interference with a flight crew and assault” while in U.S. airspace.  

Hsu made his initial court appearance on 1 November in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California. (United States of America v. Brian Hsu, U.S. District Court for Colorado, No. 21-mj-00179, 2021) 

There are increasing reports of unruly or violent passengers attacking flight staff and other passengers, and even attempting to force their way into cockpit areas. As a result, some airlines, including Delta, have announced they are creating a “no-fly” list for unruly passengers.  

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, incidents involving unruly or argumentative passengers were already on the rise as consumers express frustrations with over-booked cabins, increased security checks, and even decreased personal seat space.  

But since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, violent or highly antagonistic behavior from passengers has boosted the trend, with some incidents sparked by discontent over federal mask mandates and others involving the consumption of alcohol, the sale of which on some flights has been temporarily suspended. 

“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,” The Washington Post reported. “... 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.” 

Earlier in 2021, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration field offices began reinstating a self-defense program for flight attendants. The program was brought back because of the recent increase in combative passengers on planes and instructs crew on how to not only defend themselves but also how to disarm and restrain violent passengers when necessary.  

By August, the FAA reported that it had levied more than $1 million in fines to passengers behaving in an unruly manner. But the incidents are still taking a toll on flight crews, who have added an increased likelihood of passenger violence and exposure to the COVID-19 virus to their workplace risks.  

“A survey by the (Association of Flight Attendants-CWA) released in July of this year found that, of the 5,000 flight attendants surveyed, 85% said they'd dealt with unruly passengers in 2021,” CNN reported back in September. “Disruptive passengers had used sexist, racist and/or homophobic language, according to 61 percent, while 17 percent said they'd been victim of a physical attack this year.” 

At the beginning of October, President Joe Biden ordered the DOJ to address the issue. Biden’s call for greater action in addressing unruly passengers was echoed by Democratic senators in letters to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland, according to The Hill. “Specifically, they requested that more be done to criminally prosecute the disruptive travelers,” the article said.  

Along with self-defense training for flight attendants from the TSA, Business Insider reported that the FAA has proposed giving flight crew a mandatory rest of 10 hours between their shifts to mitigate widespread burnout and employee attrition. The proposal comes almost three years after Congress ordered the increase in October 2018. The FAA apparently missed the November 2018 deadline to implement the change because of delays during the previous administration.