By Laura Studley, Amanda Jackson and Marnie Hunter, CNN
A California man was charged after he allegedly punched a flight attendant in the back of the head on an American Airlines flight, federal prosecutors announced Thursday.
Alexander Tung Cuu Le, 33, of Westminster, California, is charged with interference with flight crew members and attendants, which carries a statutory maximum sentence of 20 years in federal prison.
Le was a passenger on American Airlines flight 377 traveling from San José del Cabo, Mexico, to Los Angeles International Airport on September 21.
According to an affidavit from an FBI special agent supporting the complaint, confrontation on the flight began when Le got up from his seat and asked for coffee during beverage service, grabbing one flight attendant by the shoulders.
The affidavit says another flight attendant who approached Le was confronted with “a fighting stance.” When that attendant turned toward the front of plane to report Le’s behavior to the pilot, Le rushed toward the attendant and punched him in the back of the head, the affidavit says.
That act was caught by a passenger on video, which the affidavit cites in noting that Le “used a closed fist to strike flight attendant.”
Video posted on social media shows an individual approach a flight attendant toward the front of the plane and proceed to punch the flight attendant. An audible gasp could be heard from passengers who witnessed the incident.
As Le fled toward the back of the plane, passengers apprehended him, the affidavit states, and he was restrained with flex cuffs provided by a flight attendant.
Le was ultimately moved away from the aisle and further restrained, yet he “continuously unbuckled his seatbelt, causing flight attendants to restrain him to the seat with seatbelt extenders.”
The flight attendant who was punched remained in the back galley of the plane with ice on his head for the rest of the flight, the affidavit said, and was transported to a hospital upon landing.
Another flight attendant “was shaking so much that she had difficulty performing her duties,” the affidavit said, and “stated the flight was ‘the longest hour and 58 minutes of my life.'”
Le was scheduled to appear in court on Thursday, prosecutors said in a release, but it was continued to Monday, September 26 at 10 a.m., according to the US Attorney’s office.
CNN has reached out to Le’s attorney for comment.
Unruly behavior ‘must stop’
“Acts of violence against our team members are not tolerated by American Airlines,” the airline said in a statement. “The individual involved in this incident will never be allowed to travel with us in the future, and we will work closely with law enforcement in their investigation.”
“We thank our crew for their quick action and professionalism to ensure the safety of their fellow team members and customers on board,” reads the statement from American Airlines. “Our thoughts are with our injured flight attendant, and we are ensuring that they and their fellow crew members have the support they need at this time.”
The Association of Professional Flight Attendants (APFA), the union representing more than 24,000 American Airlines flight attendants, condemned the incident.
“This violent behavior puts the safety of all passengers and crew in jeopardy and must stop,” said Julie Hedrick, national president of APFA, in a statement.
“APFA fully supports the affected crew members, and will do all possible to ensure that the passenger faces prosecution to the fullest extent of the law.”
Measures in place to address unruly passengers
In January 2021, the Federation Aviation Administration announced a “zero tolerance” policy for unruly passenger behavior that skips warnings or counseling and goes directly to penalties, which can include heavy fines and jail time.
A New York City woman was recently sentenced to four months in prison for interference with flight crew members for an incident that occurred aboard a February 2021 American Airlines flight.
The FAA proposed $5 million in fines against unruly passengers in 2021.
So far in 2022 there have been 1,973 reports of unruly passengers, according to the FAA.
The number of reported incidents of unruly passenger behavior has declined from 2021, which was a record year for unruly passenger behavior. The FAA logged nearly 6,000 reports of unruly behavior in 2021.
While the number of reported incidents has declined, the number of cases where enforcement action was initiated has gone up. So far in 2022, there have been 468 enforcement cases initiated. In 2021, there were 350.
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CNN’s Cheri Mossburg contributed to this report.