ORLANDO, Fla. – Dozens of airline passengers have been arrested for disorderly conduct and violent behavior at Orlando International Airport during the COVID-19 pandemic, records obtained by News 6 show.
Orlando police have taken travelers into custody for alleged crimes such as battering airline employees, fighting with other passengers in the gate area, throwing food at staff members and attempting to board planes after being denied access due to being intoxicated or behaving inappropriately, according to court records.
Incidents occurring on airport grounds, which are prosecuted by the State of Florida, are separate from the record number of passengers accused of violating federal regulations while on board aircraft.
The Federal Aviation Administration investigated 5,981 reports of unruly passengers last year, an overwhelming increase from the 146 complaints filed by flight crews in 2019 prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Air rage is nothing new. But what we saw in 2021 was off the charts,” said Taylor Garland, a spokesperson for the Association of Flight Attendants–CWA. “This is not something we’re willing to accept.”
Mitra Amirzadeh, an Orlando-based flight attendant and union member, says some of her co-workers have been physically attacked.
“There are flight attendants that are being spit on, that are being grabbed or touched inappropriately,” Amirzadeh said. “I personally know gate agents (who have been) punched so bad that they had to be removed and taken to the hospital with a knot on the side of their head.”
Officers with the Orlando Police Department respond to disturbances that occur inside the airport or while an aircraft is parked at a gate.
“When a passenger becomes unruly on the ground, it could jeopardize the entire flight, and it could jeopardize an entire airport system and how it operates,” Orlando Police Deputy Chief James Young said.
“Our officers do a great job at trying to de-escalate these situations as much as possible when they arrive on scene. But sometimes, you’ll still see the passenger still very irate, still very upset,” Young said. “At a certain point, (the officers) are going to have to take action. In some cases, the individuals are arrested because of criminal allegations.”
The federal mandate requiring airline passengers to wear face masks has prompted many conflicts between passengers and flight crews, airline workers say.
“It’s happening here in Orlando, the ‘House of Mouse’ where everybody comes to vacation,” Amirzadeh said. “I’ve got all these families and all these children on board, and the next thing you know, someone’s arguing and cussing. All over a mask.”
But face masks are not the only issue, according to the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA.
“Traveling is incredibly stressful, especially during a continuous pandemic,” Garland said. “Passengers who are already agitated go to a ‘level 10′ much quicker and are much more violent than they have ever been before.”
The flight attendant union believes increased alcohol sales at many airports and the availability of to-go drinks have exacerbated unruly behavior.
“Passengers are able to order alcohol to the gate and can drink right up until they board that plane,” said Garland, who believes the arrangement makes it less likely for a trained bartender to cut off someone who had consumed too much.
As the pandemic began, most airlines suspended alcohol sales during flights. Many have since resumed the service, with Southwest Airlines allowing passengers to buy alcohol once again on-board starting Feb. 16.
“The drunker a passenger gets, the less willing they’re going to be to comply with crew member instructions,” Garland said.
Several of the passengers arrested by Orlando police for disorderly or violent behavior appeared to have been under the influence of alcohol, according to court records.
“I’m (expletive) up, I know. I’ve drunk too much,” William Kashner told Orlando police after he allegedly pushed and chest-bumped a gate agent in November.
Kashner, 35, has pleaded not guilty to a charge of misdemeanor battery. His attorney declined an opportunity to comment.
Chelsea Alston was denied boarding on a flight in April 2021 because airline workers believed she appeared intoxicated.
Alston, 32, rode away from the gate area on a motorized suitcase but then disobeyed an Orlando police officer’s instructions to leave a secured area of the airport, according to court records.
Police later arrested Alston after she allegedly spit on the officer. She was also charged with causing more than $1,000 dollars in damage to the interior of a police car while being driven to jail.
Alston has pleaded not guilty to the felony charges.
A large percentage of the passengers arrested at Orlando International Airport in 2021 were charged with misdemeanor offenses, court records show, which carry maximum penalties of one year or less in jail.
In many of those misdemeanor cases, defendants were sentenced to the time they served in jail while awaiting a court hearing or were referred to a pretrial diversion program.
Similar to probation, pretrial diversion programs may include community service, counseling, or the payment of fees.
Emmari Jackson was arrested in June 2020 after allegedly battering five airline employees following a dispute over a carry-on bag.
Jackson, 23, was later referred to a pretrial diversion program that could have led to the dismissal of the misdemeanor charges had she successfully completed the requirements. But Jackson failed to comply with the conditions of the program, according to prosecutors, and is now awaiting trial. She has pleaded not guilty.
Hayley Agueda, 25, was accused of hitting an Orlando airline employee in the jaw as the worker attempted to remove her from the plane for yelling and cursing in June 2021.
Agueda later pleaded no contest to misdemeanor battery and was sentenced to the two days she previously served in jail and six months of probation. She was also required to take an anger management course, court records show.
“I guess I’m sorry. I was kind of intoxicated,” Agueda told News 6.
Unruly passenger incidents that occur once an aircraft leaves the gate are generally handled by federal authorities rather than local police.
In January 2021, FAA Administrator Steve Dickson signed an order directing the agency to immediately pursue enforcement action, without prior warnings or counseling, against any passenger who interferes with an airline crew member.
The FAA can propose civil penalties up to $37,000 per violation, but the agency does not have authority to criminally prosecute passengers.
The U.S. Department of Justice has pursued criminal charges in some cases, including that of a California woman accused of attacking a Southwest Airlines flight attendant, causing the employee to lose two teeth.
Vyvianna Quinonez is facing up to 20 years in prison after pleading guilty to interfering with a flight attendant. But prosecutors plan to seek four months of imprisonment as part of a plea agreement, court records show.
“It’s clear that these disruptive passengers aren’t getting the message,” Garland said. “Civil penalties are not enough. We need criminal prosecution. We’ll see a lot more sobering up from passengers once there’s real jail time.”
Many airlines maintain internal “no-fly” lists of unruly passengers who have been banned from future flights with their company, but such lists are not currently shared with other carriers.
“One airline may bar (a passenger), but the next day they could get on a different airline,” Garland said.
The flight attendant union supports a coordinated “no-fly” list, separate from the FBI’s terrorist watchlist, that would be coordinated by the federal government.
Earlier this month, the CEO of Delta Airlines sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice proposing that unruly passengers be added to the existing nationwide “no-fly” list.
To minimize the stress that can lead passengers to unruly behavior, airline workers and law enforcement officials remind travelers to arrive at the airport early and be prepared for inconveniences.
“We all know flight schedules sometimes get changed, get canceled, or get delayed. Don’t allow that to interrupt your day,” Young said.
“You have a job to do when you go to work. And we have a job to do when we come to work,” said Amirzadeh, the Orlando flight attendant. “So just take a deep breath. Don’t yell at us. We’re just trying to help you.”