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L.A. man pleads guilty to interference with Delta Airlines flight attendant

Three Delta jets sit at LAX
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
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A Los Angeles man pleaded guilty this week to interfering with a Delta Airlines flight attendant’s duties during a flight from Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles in December 2020, authorities said.

Ariel James Pennington, 35, was detained on the aircraft after threatening a flight attendant and physically assaulting a federal air marshal, according to the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Oklahoma.

The flight had to be diverted to Oklahoma City, where Pennington was arrested on suspicion of disorderly conduct and public drunkenness.

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He was indicted on two counts of assaulting a flight attendant and a federal air marshal in January of last year. As part of a plea agreement, the second count was dropped.

Pennington faces up to 20 years in prison and a maximum of $250,000 fine. A sentencing date will be set in approximately 90 days.

The Federal Aviation Administration reported a spike in unruly passenger incidents in 2021, which amounted to approximately 6,000 cases. More than 1,000 of those reports have been investigated compared with 183 in 2020.

Though 70% of the incidents were related to passenger mask mandates, flight attendants have also attributed the surge to excessive alcohol consumption.

In response to the increasing threat of violent behavior on aircrafts, former FAA administrator Steve Dickson enforced a zero-tolerance policy in January 2021, raising the maximum fine from $25,000 to $37,000.

The FAA will no longer issue warnings or recommend counseling in unruly-passenger incidents but instead pursue legal enforcement, which can lead to hefty penalties or criminal charges. It is against federal law to assault, threaten, intimidate or interfere with a crew member’s duties during a flight.

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The outgoing chief, whose post has yet to be filled by the Biden administration, said he believes the policy should remain in place indefinitely, regardless of the COVID-19 mask mandate status. A tougher stance on unruly passengers comes amid a national survey of 5,000 flight attendants across 30 airlines that found nearly 85% encountered unruly passengers and 17% physical incidents.

“This is not just about masks as some have attempted to claim,” said Sara Nelson, president of the Assn. of Flight Attendants-CWA. “It is time to make the FAA ‘zero tolerance’ policy permanent.”

On Wednesday, Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and U.S. Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Dublin, Calif.) introduced a new bill that would place passengers convicted of assaulting crew members on a no-fly list. The Protection from Abusive Passengers Act would allow banned individuals to appeal and provide ways to lift the ban.

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