An American Airlines flight from Dallas to Bozeman was forced to make an emergency landing on January 4th after an apparently intoxicated passenger allegedly punched a flight attendant in the face. The passenger now faces federal charges for interference with flight crew members.
Passenger Appeared Intoxicated, Belligerent Shortly After Takeoff
Flight 1497 departed Dallas Fort Worth International Airport at around 3 pm Central Time on January 4th, headed for Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport in Montana. According to the criminal complaint filed later that day, several passengers observed Keith Fagiana acting erratically and appearing heavily intoxicated soon after takeoff.
A fellow passenger seated near Fagiana stated that he attempted to order alcohol from the flight attendant despite already appearing extremely drunk. After being denied more alcohol, he allegedly became verbally abusive towards the flight crew.
Multiple witnesses report that Fagiana used expletives and racial slurs when addressing airline staff. One flight attendant quoted him as saying, “You can’t tell me what to do! You’re just a stupid flight attendant!”
Disruptive Behavior Escalates, Passenger Punches Flight Attendant
As the disruptive behavior continued, the flight crew made the decision to divert to Amarillo, landing at Rick Husband Amarillo International Airport where law enforcement could intervene.
However, approximately 30 minutes before landing in Amarillo, while flight attendants were preparing the cabin, the situation escalated violently. According to a cell phone video taken by another passenger, Fagiana punched a male flight attendant in the back of the head without warning.
The attendant, who has not been publicly named, was knocked to the floor by the sudden blow. The shocking assault left him bleeding from a gash to his nose and lip. Fellow crew members and a passenger doctor rushed to provide first aid.
Emergency Landing, Passenger Arrested
After the emergency landing in Amarillo, local police boarded the plane and took Fagiana into custody without further incident. He was transported to Randall County Jail.
The assaulted flight attendant was also removed from the plane to receive medical treatment. None of the other crew members or passengers reported injuries.
After removing the unruly passenger and allowing the flight attendant to disembark, the plane was refueled and continued on to Bozeman without further disruption, arriving approximately 3 hours behind schedule.
Passenger Faces Federal Charges
Fagiana is being held without bond on a federal charge of “interference with flight crew members and attendants,” which can carry penalties of up to 20 years in prison.
Further court documents reveal he also faces charges of assaulting and intimidating the flight crew, as well as kicking an Amarillo police officer in the groin while being detained.
|Interference with flight crew
|Up to 20 years imprisonment
|Up to 1 year imprisonment
|Intimidating flight attendant
|Up to 5 years imprisonment
This was not the only report of an unhinged passenger creating an onboard disturbance this week. On January 4th, a Delta flight from Los Angeles to Nashville was also forced to make an unscheduled stop after an apparently intoxicated man threatened passengers and crew.
These incidents come as flight crews report a dangerous increase in belligerent behavior post-pandemic. In 2021, nearly 6,000 unruly passenger reports were made to the FAA. It’s possible stricter enforcement and prosecution will be needed to curb the violent outbursts.
Flight Attendant Assaults on the Rise
Assaults specifically targeting airline staff have become an epidemic that threatens safety according to flight attendant unions. In a statement, the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA said:
“This violent behavior puts the safety of all passengers and crew in jeopardy and must stop.”
Police and aviation authorities have echoed these concerns about the frequency of attacks:
“Unruly passenger incidents have increased nearly three-fold since the FAA launched its zero-tolerance campaign early this year, despite smiling travel photos and reports about vacations resuming as normal across the U.S.,” said Amarillo Director of Aviation Mark Miller.
Flight crew assaults have occurred with alarming frequency since air travel resumed after COVID shutdowns:
- October 27th, 2021 – A passenger duct-taped to his seat after allegedly groping flight attendants
- November 1st, 2021- A drunk passenger attempted to break into the cockpit before attacking crew members
- March 9th, 2022 – A first class passenger spit at and punched a flight attendant
- April 22nd, 2022 – A woman knocked out two teeth of a Southwest Airlines crew member
- August 10th, 2022 – An enraged flyer bit a passenger and flight attendant before being restrained
Calls for Increased Prosecution
Aviation professionals say these violent incidents have a significant psychological impact and raise safety concerns among air crews:
“Our members are reaching their breaking point with the constant threats, harassment and assault from passengers,” said Sara Nelson, International President of the Association of Flight Attendants.
In response to the perceived increase in attacks, flight attendant unions have called for the creation of a federal “no-fly” list for offenders, as well as increased prosecution. The FAA has pledged to levy fines of up to $37,000 per violation against unruly passengers.
However, some critics have accused the agency of being slow to investigate reported incidents. Of the over 150 cases referred for potential criminal prosecution in 2021, only one has actually been charged as of November 2022.
The FAA maintains that it pursues enforcement action in all cases where there is sufficient evidence of a violation. Historically, the majority of proposed fines are eventually dropped due to lack of proof or jurisdictional issues.
Conclusion: Further Incidents Possible But Change May Be Coming
With holiday travel still in full swing, more air rage episodes unfortunately seem inevitable in the near-term. However, there are glimmers of hope that the tide may be shifting.
The speed with which Fagiana was criminally charged suggests that authorities are taking allegations of passenger violence more seriously post-pandemic. Additionally, pending FAA legislation proposes doubling the maximum fine to $75,000 per infraction while expanding the agency’s authority to quickly identify and penalize unruly flyers.
Only time will tell whether these measures successfully deter attacks targeting airline staff. But one thing remains clear – flight crews deserve to feel safe, and any act of violence thousands of feet in the air jeopardizes everyone on board.