What could happen to JetBlue passenger who ticked off Steve Slater?

JetBlue flight attendant Steve Slater faces criminal charges for deploying the plane's emergency chute. But the passenger blamed for setting off his tirade could also face charges or fines.

Wilfredo Lee/AP/File
A JetBlue plane takes off from Miami International Airport in Miami, in this Oct. 2009 photo. By now millions of Americans know lots of details about JetBlue flight attendant Steve Slater, but what about that mystery passenger?

By now millions of Americans know lots of details about Steve Slater, the JetBlue flight attendant who took the emergency chute after arguing with a female passenger and now faces criminal charges.

But what about that mystery passenger? Will she face any charges for reportedly getting into a dispute over her carry-on luggage on that infamous flight from Pittsburgh to New York?

Although she has yet to be publicly identified, the authorities investigating the incident certainly would have interviewed her.

In theory, like Mr. Slater, who has been charged with reckless endangerment, trespassing, and criminal mischief, she could be charged with a crime or fined if she did in fact interfere with a flight attendant in the performance of his duties.

Additionally, according Les Dorr, a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) spokesman, there is a rule that passengers must comply with safety instructions, such as keeping your seat belt fastened until the captain signals it’s safe to get up.

“That said, if someone stands up while pulling into the gate, technically it’s a violation of the [regulations], but you usually do not get busted for that,” says Mr. Dorr. “But, if a flight attendant says ‘sit down’ and you disregard them you could be interfering with their duties."

Passengers standing up before the plane stops are a common sight on commercial flights. But Denny Kelly, a retired commercial pilot, says flyers should be aware that the last 10 feet before a plane reaches the gate could be dangerous.

"There could be a baggage cart that causes the pilot to slam on the brakes, or a bunch of ground crew who are not where they are supposed to be,” says Mr. Kelly, now an airline investigator at Kelly James & Associates in Dallas. “I was a safety guy for the airline for many years and I can tell you that when you are in close it can be dangerous.”

John Greaves, a former commercial pilot who is now a lawyer, points out that the flight attendants are “not just waiters and waitresses,” but are actually on board for safety purposes.

“There are no rules on supplying passengers with pillows or drinks but the FAA does require safety training on things like evacuations,” says Mr. Greaves, who is with the Los Angeles law firm Baum, Hedlund, Aristei & Goldman that specializes in aviation issues.

The FAA does not have the authority to arrest someone, points out Kelly. But they can refer a case to law enforcement, such as the FBI or local police, he says.

Many people would like to see the passenger that Slater allegedly argued with charged with something.

One of those is New Yorker John Bratten, who does not know Slater, but spent three hours at a bail facility on Tuesday night with the intent of posting bail for the flight attendant. (As it turned out, Slater had already posted it.)

Mr. Bratten, a retired marine, has never posted bail for a complete stranger before.

“It just got to me. A JetBlue flight attendant doing his job, protecting all us Americans, and he ends up in jail,” he wrote in an e-mail. “I think the passenger who illegally retrieved luggage, and injured the flight attendant should be banned from future flight travel and charged with assault.”

If the individual were to be charged, that's a matter for New York police as there is no federal charge of assault and battery, says Mr. Greaves. “There has to be a high probability of harm,” he says. “But, there was some kind of harm that came to pass here.”

Given all the publicity about the case, authorities might want to do something, says Stan Twardy, a former US Attorney for Connecticut.

“People have been arrested for fighting with the attendant before,” says Mr. Twardy, now a partner at Day Pitney LLP in Stamford, Conn. “But they usually don’t go to jail, it’s usually the kind of thing where the person gets a slap on the wrist versus a more serious action against them.”

Depending on the charge, the potential penalty for interfering with a flight attendant is a fine of as much as $20,000 per violation, according to Alison Duquette, a spokeswoman for the FAA.

“The most egregious cases are reported to law enforcement, as well,” she says.

Greaves says it’s most likely the police will ask JetBlue what they want to do. Will the airline want to make an example of the passenger? Or will they hope the whole incident fades from memory?

On Thursday afternoon, JetBlue corporate communications said it had no comment on the incident.

But Greaves predicts what will happen: “They will fire a flight attendant before [pursuing] charges against a passenger.”

Slater is scheduled to appear in court on Sept. 7.

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