Tales from the Trail

Jokes, arguments on airlines risk prison time in U.S.

January 12, 2010

Flying these days has become a pretty serious and daunting endeavor in the wake of the failed bombing attempt on the Amsterdam-to-Detroit flight on Christmas day. And U.S. officials appear to be putting the word out — don’t mess with us.

Two plane incidents last week — one plane bound for Hawaii returned to Portland, Oregon and another flight diverted to Colorado Springs, Colorado — have resulted in two men being charged with interfering with a flight crew which carries a maximum 20-year prison sentence if convicted.

In the incident involving a Hawaiian Airlines flight to Kahului, a passenger seated in the exit row of the plane was unhappy that he could not store his carry-on bag where he had easy access to it and decided to fill out a comment card.

SECURITY-AIRLINE/The passenger, identified in court documents as Joseph Johnson, sealed the card and gave it to a flight attendant, but it was opened and the crew became concerned about the content. The pilot  decided to turn the plane back to Portland and Johnson was taken off the plane.

Johnson wrote on the card, which he said he filled out as a joke, that he “thought I was going to die, we were so high up, I thought to myself: I hope we don’t crash and burn, or worse yet, landing in the ocean, living through it, only to be eaten by sharks, or worse yet, end up on someplace like Gilligans Island, stranded, or worse yet, be eaten by a tribe of headhunters…”

According to an affidavit filed by an FBI agent, Johnson said he expected it only to be read back at the airline’s headquarters long after the flight was over. He said he did not know that he was the reason the plane was turned back to Portland and that he was sorry.

In the other incident, an AirTran flight from Atlanta to San Francisco made an emergency landing after a man grew belligerent with the flight crew who tried to refuse his demands for more alcohol.

The individual, Muhammad Abu Tahir, was served five airplane-sized bottles of wine during the course of the flight, two only after he badgered flight attendants for them, according to an FBI affidavit filed with the complaint.

After drinking the wine, he went to the bathroom where he took off his shirt and began shaving, according to an FBI affidavit. Despite requests by the crew that he leave the lavatory, Tahir refused and yelled at them.

He was accused of grabbing on the arms and hands of the senior flight attendant but released after another passenger intervened, the affidavit said. The crew also moved a fire extinguisher and two beverage carts to strategic locations in case they needed to use them to contain him, the affidavit said.SECURITY-AIRLINE/

When interviewed by the FBI, Tahir said he was not aware that he upset other passengers and that he had probably spent two hours in the lavatory.

Both Johnson and Tahir were charged with interference with a flight crew member and if convicted, face up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine, as well as potential restitution to the airlines.

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- Photo credit: Reuters/Mike Segar (A TSA agent looks at a traveler and his identification); Rebecca Cook (Northwest Flight 253 in Detroit).

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