30 months in prison for man who forced flight to land in Atlanta

He threatened passengers, crew with box cutter
A man was sentenced to prison after he threatened passengers with a box cutter on a Frontier Airlines flight that had to make an emergency landing in Atlanta in 2022, officials said.

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

A man was sentenced to prison after he threatened passengers with a box cutter on a Frontier Airlines flight that had to make an emergency landing in Atlanta in 2022, officials said.

An Ohio man who threatened passengers with a box cutter on a Frontier Airlines flight that was forced to make an emergency landing at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in 2022 was sentenced to 30 months in prison Thursday.

William Allen Liebisch, 43, said he was going stab someone with the box cutter after he snuck a spare blade past TSA officers and onto the flight that departed from Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport on Nov. 11, 2022, and was originally headed to Tampa, Florida, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

As Atlanta police officers positioned themselves at the gate following the emergency landing and the final passengers neared the plane’s exit, Liebisch charged at a flight attendant while wielding the box cutter, the DOJ said in a news release Thursday. A passenger tackled Liebisch from behind and the officers ran onto the plane to arrest him.

“Liebisch’s disturbance on the flight, his arrest and TSA’s baggage re-inspection protocols forced Frontier Airlines to delay the flight to Tampa until the following morning, due to safety regulations that limit the number of hours a flight crew may be on duty in one day,” the release stated.

After Liebisch was apprehended, a yellow box cutter was found in the pocket of his jacket, according to a criminal complaint. A search was also conducted and a second one was discovered in his carry-on luggage, the TSA stated.

Liebisch, who had at least 28 prior convictions, pleaded guilty in December in federal court to interference with flight crew members and attendants, according to court documents. U.S. District Judge J.P. Boulee sentenced him to 30 months in prison, followed by three years of supervised release. His previous longest sentence was 18 months for a 2012 robbery conviction, prosecutors said.

“Safety is paramount to everyone aboard commercial aircraft, including flight crew at their workplace,” said Joseph Harris with the Department of Transportation Office of Inspector General for the Southern Region. “As illustrated by today’s sentencing, we will continue working diligently with our law enforcement and prosecutorial partners to hold accountable unruly passengers who disrupt airline operations.”

On the day of the flight, Liebisch arrived at the Cincinnati airport with a ticket and entered the TSA security checkpoint, presenting two backpacks and submitting additional loose items into bins for screening. Everything was screened using CT technology, but the TSA said the CT was not correctly used by employees and the box cutters were not identified during the process. Eventually, Liebisch’s property was identified for further search, during which the TSA said one box cutter was found.

Officers removed the visible blades and handed it back to him, according to the TSA. The DOJ stated that officials mistakenly believed they had disabled the weapon by removing the blades.

“The visible blades were removed and disposed of from the box cutter, and the box cutter without the visible blades was handed back to the passenger,” according to the TSA after the incident. “This is contrary to standard operating procedure, which requires these items to be placed in checked bags or voluntarily abandoned. The backpack containing the other box cutter, and the remainder of the traveler’s property, was screened for explosives, but the box cutter was not discovered.”

TSA employees involved in the incident were placed back into training to review CT image and physical search procedures. At the time, the agency said it was also working with the airport on reviewing property disposition of box cutters and other prohibited items discovered during a search. Nationally, TSA said it would issue a brief for all screening employees on this incident.

After the plane was in the air, the DOJ said Liebisch put a spare blade into the box cutter that had been stored in its handle. A passenger saw him using the box cutter to clean his nails, the release added, while another person told flight attendants that Liebisch threated to stab someone.

With no law enforcement officers on board, a flight attendant recruited two men to keep Liebisch in his seat. That happened in the short time Liebisch went to the bathroom, according to a sentencing memo. After he returned, they all tried to keep him calm for the remainder of the flight.

But their presence made him nervous, prosecutors said, as Liebisch “continuously banged the box cutter against the nearby jump seat.”

As fears spread throughout the aircraft, the captain decided to make an emergency landing at the nearest airport. After arriving in Atlanta, the passengers were told to deplane immediately and leave their belongings behind. The plane did not arrive in Tampa until Nov. 12 because the crew maxed out its number of in-flight hours allowed per day, the memo stated.

No injuries were reported to passengers or crew members.

In the sentencing decision, the government said Liebisch suffered a traumatic brain injury from an attack two decades ago and that it was “quite plausible” some of his behavior on the flight was tied to drug abuse and “residual mental trauma.”

Federal prosecutors added that they hoped the sentence would “deter him from engaging in future crimes” and prevent “others from bringing dangerous weapons on board an aircraft and acting recklessly with them.”

“The flying public deserves to travel in peace without fear that a fellow passenger will create a violent disturbance,” U.S. Attorney Ryan Buchanan said in a statement. “Liebisch’s conduct created panic among the flight crew and his fellow travelers. His prosecution and sentence hopefully provide a message of deterrence to others.”