A Frontier Airlines passenger assaulted three flight attendants, punching one and groping the breasts of two others, on a weekend flight from Philadelphia to Miami, prompting one crew member to tape him to his seat until the plane landed, the authorities said.
Part of the altercation was caught on video by other passengers, who jeered as the man was restrained for the remainder of Flight 2289, which left Philadelphia at 10:41 p.m. on Saturday and landed two hours and 37 minutes later.
Frontier Airlines said in an initial statement on Tuesday that the flight attendants would be “relieved of flying” while it investigated, which drew sharp criticism from the Association of Flight Attendants, the nation’s largest flight attendants union. Later on Tuesday, the airline said that paid leave was in line with “an event of this nature.”
The Association of Flight Attendants said that the encounter was emblematic of the hostilities faced by airline crews since the loosening of travel restrictions that had been put in place because of the coronavirus pandemic. It came amid a surge of reports filed by airlines with the Federal Aviation Administration about unruly passengers, who have faced steep fines for disruptions.
In one video, which was obtained by several television stations and received widespread attention online, the man, who the police said had been drinking, repeatedly cursed at other passengers and at the crew. He said that his parents were worth “two million goddamn dollars.”
The Miami-Dade Police Department identified the man as Maxwell Berry, 22, of Norwalk, Ohio, who it said in a criminal complaint had been charged with three misdemeanor counts of battery.
It was not immediately clear if Mr. Berry had a lawyer. Messages left by phone at his family’s home in Ohio and by email on Tuesday were not answered.
In another video obtained by the website TMZ, Mr. Berry harangued passengers and brought up his race.
“I’m white,” he said. “I’m sorry, I can’t change that.”
At one point, someone on the plane yelled for his mouth to be taped shut. A few moments later, a crew member wrapped Mr. Berry’s mouth and chin with tape, which the airline employee quickly lowered away from his mouth. Mr. Berry yelled “help” several times, followed by an announcement by the crew that the flight was about to land.
Mr. Berry was booked into the Miami-Dade Corrections and Rehabilitation Department on Sunday and was released later that day. Court date information was not immediately available from the department.
The trouble began when Mr. Berry ordered his third alcoholic beverage of the flight and brushed his empty cup against a flight attendant’s backside, according to the criminal complaint, which said that the flight attendant told him “don’t touch me.”
Mr. Berry, who had been sitting in seat 28D, then emerged from the bathroom shirtless after spilling his drink, prompting a flight attendant to tell him that he needed to be fully dressed, the complaint said. The flight attendant helped him get a shirt out of his carry-on luggage, and Mr. Berry walked around the cabin for about 15 minutes.
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That’s when he groped the breasts of another flight attendant, who told him not to touch her and to sit down, the authorities said. In the criminal complaint, officers wrote that Mr. Berry later put his arms around the same two flight attendants and groped their breasts.
When a male flight attendant approached and asked him several times to calm down, officers said, Mr. Berry punched him in the face with a closed fist.
Sara Nelson, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants, said in a statement on Tuesday that the encounter was one of the worst disruptions experienced by airline crews this year.
“A drunk and irate passenger verbally, physically and sexually assaulted multiple members of the crew,” Ms. Nelson said. “When he refused to comply after multiple attempts to de-escalate, the crew was forced to restrain the passenger with the tools available to them onboard. We are supporting the crew.”
In their complaint, officers said that several other passengers had helped to restrain Mr. Berry, whom the video showed being secured to a seat by a male crew member with what appeared to be packaging tape. A seatbelt extender was also used as a restraint, the police said. Some other passengers laughed and pulled out their cellphone cameras to record the scene.
“Frontier Airlines maintains the utmost value, respect, concern and support for all of our flight attendants, including those who were assaulted on this flight,” the carrier, which is based in Denver, said. “We are supporting the needs of these team members and are working with law enforcement to fully support the prosecution of the passenger involved.”
But the flight attendants union criticized the airline’s initial response.
“Management suspended the crew as a knee-jerk reaction to a short video clip that did not show the full incident,” said Ms. Nelson, the union’s president. “Management should be supporting the crew at this time, not suspending them.”
Frontier did not answer questions about the airline’s policies and procedures for restraining unruly passengers, including whether tape had been approved for that purpose.
In the criminal complaint, the arresting officers said that they had referred the matter to the F.B.I., but that it had declined to pursue federal felony charges against Mr. Berry.
Mr. Berry’s legal problems may be just beginning, though.
The F.A.A. has fined several passengers tens of thousands of dollars this year for clashing with airline crews over mask requirements and other safety instructions. Earlier this year, the agency imposed a zero-tolerance policy for interfering with or assaulting flight attendants that carries a fine of up to $35,000 and possible jail time.
An F.A.A. spokesman said in an email on Tuesday that the agency investigates all reports of unruly passengers, but that it could not comment on individual cases.
“Cabin crews are responsible for deciding how to respond to unruly-passenger incidents,” said the spokesman, Ian Gregor.
According to the F.A.A., it has received 3,715 reports of unruly behavior by passengers so far this year, including about 2,729 reports of passengers refusing to comply with the federal mask mandate.
In videos taken by other passengers, Mr. Berry did not cover his face with his mask, which was pulled down under his chin. Frontier Airlines and the police did not say whether he had been asked to cover his face.
In an email on Tuesday, the F.A.A. said that it had identified potential violations in 628 cases of unruly passengers and had initiated enforcement action in 99 cases.
Mr. Berry graduated in May from Ohio Wesleyan University, where he received a values in action award from the Greek life community for being a “perfect role model” and for leading “the fight to dismantle fraternity stereotypes.” The university posted a Zoom video of the presentation.
“Ohio Wesleyan is saddened to learn of this situation with one of our graduates,” Cole Hatcher, a spokesman for the university, said in an email on Tuesday. “The case does not involve the university, and the incidents depicted do not reflect Ohio Wesleyan’s values.”