Unruly passengers could end up footing bill for flight diversions

In November 2016, James August was somewhere over the Pacific Ocean on a Hawaiian Airlines flight to New York, when he lost his temper in an outburst that included yelling at his girlfriend, threatening to cut her throat and striking a flight attendant.

His violent behavior was so alarming that the captain diverted the plane back to Honolulu where authorities arrested him. For August, who had been drinking, according to court records, his troubles were just beginning.

Hawaiian Airlines calculated the costs of turning around the plane, rebooking passengers and paying for maintenance and a replacement flight crew. Last year, a federal court ordered August to pay $97,817.29 in restitution for the airline's costs in one of the highest-profile restitutions levied against a passenger for flight diversion.

“Hitting people in the pocketbook is one way to show people that this is a serious issue; you’re not going to just spend 30 days in jail,” said aviation attorney Jol Silversmith, who wrote a report on criminal charges against unruly airline passengers.

No one knows how many unruly passengers cause flight diversions each year or how many are ordered to pay restitution. But in some of the most egregious incidents, unruly passengers can face large financial restitution penalties. The fines carry a dual purpose. They help airlines recoup the cost when a flight is cut short and serve as a deterrent to others to think twice before behaving badly on a flight.

Unruly passengers have been a problem airlines have grappled with for decades. But in an era with increased focus on safety and security, tighter seating and packed planes, the airline industry feels a sense of urgency to identify potential problems and prevent incidents. The restitution penalties are federal prosecutors’ efforts to put a dent in the problem.

“A lot of people who do act out on planes don’t expect there to be punishment,” said Association of Flight Attendants union spokeswoman Taylor Garland. “Having these fines in place really sends a signal to the rest of the flying public or passengers who believe that the rules don’t apply at 30,000 feet — that what you do up in the air has consequences on the ground.”

Restitution can also avoid the need for a separate civil case for damages, Silversmith said. But it could take years or even decades to pay off nearly $100,000 in restitution with wages garnished at a typical rate of 10 percent. And in many cases, an airline may never recover the full amount.

In a case in July, passenger Bolutife Olusegun Olorunda was ordered to pay Delta Air Lines $9,118 for the cost of a diversion to Tulsa after he verbally assaulted a flight attendant on his flight from Portland, Ore. to Atlanta.

(Josh Noel/Chicago Tribune/MCT)

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Some domestic flight diversions cost less, particularly if the airline can simply refuel and take off again rather than having to rebook passengers on another flight and get a new crew. But when a flight is significantly delayed, it can rack up more costs and disrupt other flights the plane is due to fly later in the day — and disrupt the schedules of hundreds of travelers.

Atlanta-based Delta said it shares information on its losses, which the government uses to determine appropriate action. The Federal Aviation Administration also has the authority to impose civil penalties of up to $25,000.

In a criminal case, restitution may be used in negotiating a sentence, according to Silversmith. “The prosecutor may say, ‘We may be willing to take time off the sentence if you’re willing to pay restitution,” he said.

Restitution doesn’t always go to the airline. Sometimes, a traveler is ordered to pay restitution to another passenger abused on a flight.

That's what happened to a first class passenger on Delta named Joseph Daniel Hudek IV, who was sentenced to two years in prison and ordered in May to pay $67,841 in restitution to victims of his in-flight incident.

The Delta plane was flying from Seattle bound for China when Hudek emerged from the lavatory agitated, and tried to open the exit door of the plane, according to a U.S. Attorney’s office in the Western District of Washington.

When two flight attendants tried to stop him, “he threw one to the floor and punched another,” according to the U.S. Attorney’s office. “When a passenger attempted to assist the flight attendants, Hudek hit him over the head with a wine bottle.”

It took multiple passengers to restrain him and the plane returned to Seattle. Passenger Lon Arnold got a concussion from the wine bottle strike and his vision was permanently damaged by the incident, the U.S. Attorney’s office said.

Hudek admitted that he “ingested marijuana edibles” before the flight, according to the U.S. Attorney’s office. Many of the worst incidents involve passengers who drank too much or abused some other substance that helped fuel aggressive or violent behavior that spun out of control.

“A lot of people take prescription drugs to feel more comfortable flying, and they don’t realize the [different] effect that alcohol or drugs can have when you’re up in the air,” Garland said.

If an issue with one problematic passenger isn’t tackled quickly, it could escalate into a conflict involving more people and become “a much bigger incident,” Garland said — which is why the captain may decide to divert.

The issue of misbehavior in the air has gained greater focus in recent years, with the International Air Transport Association pushing for countries to adopt a global legal framework and enforcement policy for unruly passengers, since gaps in governance can mean some people are never punished for misconduct.

Garland said one risk is that unruly passengers can also divert flight crews’ attention from security risks.

“Anytime there’s chaos in the cabin, it threatens the safety of flight,” Garland said. “It could also serve as a distraction for something much more dangerous.”

Facts on unruly passengers

- In 2016, there were 9,837 validated reports of unruly behavior globally, including a greater share of more serious incidents.

- Intoxication from alcohol or drugs was a factor in 33 percent of reported cases

- Diversions can cost an airline as much as $15,000 for a narrow-body domestic flight, and as much as $100,000 for a wide-body international flight.

- Top five behaviors of unruly passengers: Alcohol/intoxication - 31 percent, Smoking regulation compliance issues - 26 percent, Other regulation compliance issues - 17 percent, Dispute between passengers - 8 percent, Fasten seatbelt sign compliance issues - 7 percent.

Source: International Air Transport Association