Man charged with punching flight attendant in latest string of unruly behaviour in the skies

Alexander Tung Cuu Le was later moved to a different row, and his hands and legs were cuffed. PHOTOS: BELLAMARI8MAZZ/TWITTER, SMALLZY/TWITTER

CALIFORNIA - A California man who was captured on video punching an American Airlines flight attendant during a flight from Mexico to Los Angeles was arrested this week, the Justice Department said, the latest instance of unruly behaviour in the skies as coronavirus restrictions loosen and travel picks up.

The man, Alexander Tung Cuu Le, 33, of Westminster, California, was charged on Thursday with one count of interference with flight crew members, a day after he ran up to a flight attendant and punched him in the back of the head, the Justice Department said in a news release.

Mr Le could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted.

Mr Jelani Lindsey, a lawyer at the Office of the Federal Public Defender who is representing Mr Le, did not immediately respond to a call seeking comment on Thursday.

The Association of Professional Flight Attendants, a union that represents about 24,000 flight attendants at American Airlines, said in a statement that "this violent behaviour puts the safety of all passengers and crew in jeopardy and must stop."

The charges against Mr Le came as air travellers and crews continue to face an unusually high number of disruptions since the onset of the pandemic.

In 2019, 146 investigations into unruliness on planes were initiated.

So far in 2022, there have been 680 such investigations, according to data from the Federal Aviation Administration.

Last year, much of the aggressive passenger behaviour was tied to mask enforcement. The FAA tallied nearly 6,000 reports of unruly passengers last year, and about 4,300 of them were mask-related, according to the FAA.

The pace appears to have decelerated this year, although it remains above pre-pandemic levels.

As of Tuesday, there have been nearly 2,000 reports.

The Transportation Security Administration said earlier this year that it would stop enforcing a mask mandate on planes after a federal judge in Florida struck down the requirement.

The episode on Flight 377 began about 20 minutes after takeoff on Wednesday when Mr Le got up from his seat as flight attendants provided food and beverage service, according to an affidavit from the FBI.

Mr Le grabbed a flight attendant's left shoulder from behind and asked for coffee, the affidavit states.

Then, he grabbed both of the attendant's shoulders from behind, causing the flight attendant, who is not named, to step back and "put up a defensive posture," the affidavit states.

Mr Le then walked to the front of the plane, loitered near the first-class cabin and sat in an unoccupied row, the affidavit states.

A different flight attendant, identified in the affidavit as S.B.G., approached Mr Le and asked him to return to his seat.

But Mr Le stood up and closed both of his fists as he assumed a "fighting stance," the affidavit states.

When S.B.G. went to the front of the plane to report the behaviour to the pilot, Mr Le rushed toward him and punched him in the back of the head, the affidavit states.

Video from a passenger shows people screaming as they see a man, wearing an orange shirt with a floral pattern, strike a flight attendant.

"Oh, my god," one passenger yells.

After he hit S.B.G., Mr Le shuffled toward the back of the plane, according to the affidavit. Then, the affidavit states, "several passengers apprehended Le near an exit row."

Mr Le was later moved to a different row, and his hands and legs were cuffed, the Justice Department said.

Flight attendants had to restrain him to his seat with seat belt extenders because he kept unbuckling his seat belt, the affidavit states.

Mr Curtis Blessing, a spokesperson for American Airlines, said in a statement that Mr Le had been met by law enforcement officers upon arrival in Los Angeles.

"The individual involved in this incident," he added, "will never be allowed to travel with us in the future." NYTIMES

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.