Frontier Airlines initially suspended a flight crew for failing to follow “proper policies” by duct-taping a hostile passenger to his seat, but it appears to have now walked back the disciplinary measures after social media users and the flight attendants’ union judged the crew’s actions to be quite reasonable.
According to ABC 6, a 22-year-old Norwalk, Ohio resident, Maxwell Berry, allegedly assaulted a male flight attendant and groped two other female flight attendants while onboard a flight from Philadelphia to Miami. A police report obtained by the network stated that after consuming two drinks, Berry brushed his empty cup against a female attendant’s backside, spilled a drink on his shirt, and returned shirtless. After an attendant helped Berry get another shirt from his carry-on luggage, the report continued, he walked around for 15 minutes before groping two female flight attendants’ chests and punching a male flight attendant in the face.
After a fight, Berry’s fellow passengers restrained him. The ABC 6 report doesn’t mention specifically who duct-taped him to the seat, but the improvised shackles appear to have worked. Berry reportedly remained in his seat until landing, at which point police booked him on three counts of battery and took him to Miami-Dade County Jail for processing.
ABC reporter Sam Sweeney tweeted a video showing an unruly passenger, identified as Berry, screaming, “You guys fucking suck!” The passenger continued to rant about how rich his parents are — in his telling, “two million goddamn dollars” — before being restrained by a man wearing an airline employee badge. The video shows the man taping Berry to his seat before adjusting his face mask (which the passenger had pulled down throughout the incident). Other passengers, apparently having had more than enough antagonism for one flight, can be heard jeering at Berry.
— Sam Sweeney (@SweeneyABC) August 3, 2021
“Unfortunately, the proper policies for restraining a passenger were not followed,” Frontier told ABC in a statement. “As a result, the flight attendants involved have been suspended pending further investigation.”
However, after backlash from the Association of Flight Attendants, which represents flight attendants, as well as the video going viral on sites like Facebook and Twitter, the airline changed its tune.
“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 airline told Local 10 in another statement on Tuesday. “We are supporting the needs of these team members and are working with law enforcement to fully support the prosecution of the passenger involved. The inflight crew members’ current paid leave status is in line with an event of this nature pending an investigation.”
Bizarrely, this isn’t even the first incident involving a duct-taped passenger in the past few weeks. According to the Washington Post, American Airlines staff on a flight from Dallas-Fort Worth to Charlotte in early July physically intervened to stop an emotionally disturbed woman from allegedly attempting to open the jetliner’s outer door after takeoff, subsequently using tape to force her to remain in her seat. In that incident, American Airlines told the Post in a statement that the company “[applauds] our crew for their professionalism and quick effort to protect those on board,” though the airline didn’t clarify to the paper whether the ad hoc method of restraint was permitted by its policies.
Airlines have reported dramatically increased rates of in-flight disruption during the novel coronavirus pandemic, involving everything from passengers who force jets to return to the terminal to assaults against staff. Numerous incidents have involved passengers who refuse to wear masks, which remain mandatory for persons boarding commercial flights except when they are eating or drinking.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) released updated figures on August 1 showing 3,715 reported incidents of unruly passengers throughout 2021, with some 2,729 related to mask mandates. That’s despite zero-tolerance policies in place that the FAA has cited to slam such travellers with massive fines in the tens of thousands of dollars, on top of whatever criminal charges they may face. According to the Washington Post, while the disruptive might face immediate removal and a ban from whatever airline they were flying with, airlines don’t share information about unruly fliers and prosecutions are unwieldy affairs that can take years to reach any resolution.
Closing a case may require the involvement of “airline employees, FAA inspectors and lawyers, Transportation Department judges, local authorities, state and federal courts, FBI agents and U.S. attorneys,” the Post wrote. Prosecutors are extremely selective in which incidents to pursue, and airlines have had mixed success at seeking restitution from nuisance passengers.
A recent survey conducted by the Association of Flight Attendants found that of 5,000 flight attendants, at least 85% had dealt with an unruly passenger in the last year, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. At least 17% said they had witnessed a physical confrontation, with respondents citing masks as the most frequent cause and alcohol and flight delays following closely after.
“What we’re really seeing is an increased level of hostility on the aircraft, which is something I don’t think we’ve ever seen before in this industry,” Paul Hartshorn, a spokesman for the union, told the Post. “It’s just incredibly dangerous.”