The federal court in San Francisco has charged a 50-year-old woman from Texas with interfering with an aircraft flight by assaulting a flight attendant. If found guilty, she may face a sentence of up to 20 years in prison.
It’s the latest in a disturbing trend of rowdy passengers on board planes. The rising number of instances has spurred requests from airlines and labor organizations for tougher action and stiffer penalties to serve as a deterrence.
On November 12, 2021, the first hearing in Houston federal court began the process of obtaining an order instructing Debby Dutton of Cypress, Texas to appear in San Francisco federal court to face the charge against her.
The incident happened on June 29, 2021, when Dutton and her husband were passengers on a United Airlines trip from Alaska to San Francisco, according to the US Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of California.
Flight attendants announced many safety announcements over the plane’s intercom, as is common during pandemics, including the federal mask mandate for commercial flights.
Passengers must wear their masks at all times, according to the flight attendants, and if a passenger’s mask falls off while they are sleeping, they will be awakened up and forced to put their masks back on.
A flight attendant walked down the aisle about three and a half hours into the four-and-a-half-hour flight to collect trash and check passengers for face mask compliance, according to the complaint affidavit.
One of the passengers was sleeping, and his face mask had slid off his face, according to the flight attendant. The flight attendant patted the passenger on the shoulder with two fingers to remind him to adjust his face mask. The passenger followed the instructions.
Debby Dutton, the passenger’s wife, was seated next to him. According to the complaint affidavit, Dutton got out of her seat and spoke loudly at the flight attendant, who had already started walking down the jet aisle.
The flight attendant then attempted to explain that the passenger, Dutton’s spouse, was not wearing his face mask, but Dutton began to yell and approached the flight attendant.
Dutton pushed the flight attendant on the right arm with enough force that the attendant had to step back to preserve balance, according to the complaint affidavit. Dutton then pressed his hand against the flight attendant’s right arm once more. Dutton was told to come to a halt by the flight attendant.
Dutton’s husband requested her to return to her seat at this moment, which she ultimately did. The flight attendant informed the captain of the situation right away.
According to the complaint, the flight attendant was caught off guard and felt frightened. The assault was also described as severe and violent by the flight attendant. The flight attendant’s right bicep was bruised as a result of the pushes.
After the flight, the flight attendant sought medical assistance.
Multiple passengers who witnessed sections of the incident were interviewed by law enforcement personnel.
Dutton has been charged with one count of interfering with flight crew personnel or attendants by assault, threat, or intimidation, in violation of Title 49, United States Code, Section 46504. The charge carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison as well as a monetary punishment.
The FAA fined ten passengers approximately $225,000 on November 10, 2021, for alleged disorderly behavior involving assault. While the FAA has the authority to impose civil fines, it does not have the authority to seek criminal charges. It must send passengers to the Justice Department in order to do so.
A passenger was also charged in October 2021 for allegedly attacking an American Airlines (A1G) (AAL) cabin service member.
Over the last year, unruly behavior among travelers has been a source of concern. The FAA has received over 100 reports of passenger disturbances including physical assault since January 1, 2021, according to the organization.