Charges for interfering with a flight crew will be brought against an unruly passenger whose behavior forced an American Airlines flight from Los Angeles to Philadelphia to be diverted to Phoenix Thursday morning, police said.
Soon after takeoff, while the "fasten seat belt" sign was on, the man refused to take his seat and made statements that were alarming, authorities said. He was taken to an urgent psychological care center for evaluation, according to police.
But when an American Airlines flight from San Jose, California, was diverted to Phoenix on its way to Dallas on Oct. 20 because an apparently drunk passenger was yelling and had to be restrained, the man was taken off the plane and sent to a hotel. The airline would not press charges, police said.
And when a Southwest Airlines flight from Los Angeles to San Francisco had to turn around two days earlier after a passenger allegedly choked the woman in front of him for reclining her seat, the FBI detained the man for questioning.
"I am sure it was annoying for everyone around them but that is ridiculous to let that everyone miss their connections," wrote one commenter on NBC Bay Area's Facebook page after the Oct. 20 case. "How can it be serious enough to divert the flight but then not to press charges?"
When to pursue prosecution is a line that airlines "always have to walk because you do want there to be consequences for bad behavior,” said Seth Kaplan, the editor of Airline Weekly.
Not only are diversions disruptive for other passengers but they are pricey for the airline.
The cost of unscheduled landings to disembark or deliver passengers typically is borne by airlines and can be between $10,000 and $200,000, according to Perry Flint, a spokesman for the International Air Transport Association.
Passengers can be fined $25,000 for each incident, Kaplan said.
He said he did not know how often airlines went after passengers for the cost of diversions. As with any business, there is what the airline is entitled to and how its actions appear to the public, he said.
“They are always weighting those kinds of considerations,” Kaplan said.
In February, USA Today reported that the Federal Aviation Administration rarely issued hefty fines. A review of documents found that of about 750 crew reports filed from 2009 to 2013, only one in six had resulted in civil fines. The FAA levied about $1 million in fines, but billed about $435,000 after settlements, the paper found.
American Airlines makes its decisions on a case-by-case basis, according a spokesman, Ross Feinstein. Costs vary depending on such factors as the time it takes and the size of the aircraft.
Southwest Airlines trains its employees to deny boarding to passengers who appear to be drunk, and to handle unruly passengers aboard its flights, said spokesperson Brandy King. The captain, working with FAA Air Traffic Control, has a range of options available, from landing at the nearest airport to arranging for law enforcement officers to meet the aircraft.
It is not known whether charges were brought against the man removed from the Southwest Airlines flight. A spokeswoman for the FBI office in Los Angeles, Laura Eimiller, had said that the investigation was continuing.
Melanie Hinton, a spokeswoman for Airlines for America, an industry group, said such diversions were rare, affecting 1 in 130,000 flights.
The group supports vigorous prosecution of passengers charged with disruptive behavior as well as international efforts at the International Civil Aviation Organization and the International Air Transport Association to assure that other countries also appropriately deal with these situations, she wrote.
Airline crews do their best to keep problem passengers off planes, said Sara Nelson, the international president of the Association of Flight Attendants.
“We encourage the public to understand that if you’re drinking in the airport make sure that you’re not getting to a point where you are under the influence, where you’re inebriated or close to it,” she said.
Passengers who do interfere with the safety of the flight or cause other problems need to face stiff fines, she said.
“They need to be held accountable because that serves as a deterrent,” she said.