A Southwest Airlines employee was hospitalized after allegedly getting punched in the head by an unruly passenger on a flight taking off from the Dallas Love Field airport.
According to the Dallas Police Department, the passenger boarded the flight at 12:40 p.m. on Saturday and had a verbal altercation with an operations agent after being asked to exit the plane. As the passenger was exiting, she allegedly had another verbal argument with a different Southwest Airlines operation agent, who, according to Dallas police, the passenger then punched in the head.
The operations agent was taken to the hospital and is in stable condition, and the passenger was taken into custody and charged with aggravated assault, according to the Dallas Police Department.
The operations agent was released Saturday night from the hospital and is at home resting, said Southwest Airlines spokesperson Chris Mainz. Southwest is still in the process of clarifying reports behind the nature of the altercation.
"Our entire Southwest family is wishing her a speedy and full recovery as we send our thoughts, prayers and love to her," Mainz said. "Southwest Airlines maintains a zero-tolerance policy regarding any type of harassment or assault and fully support our employee as we cooperate with local authorities regarding this unacceptable incident."
In May, a Southwest Airlines flight attendant was assaulted by a passenger and lost two teeth, according to a letter the flight attendants union sent to the airline's CEO in an appeal for more safeguards as travel rebounds.
In February, a passenger allegedly refused to stow her carry-on luggage in the overhead bin on a Southwest Airlines flight from Boston to Chicago. She then allegedly “held onto the armrest, shouted loudly and aggressively” after being told she could not continue with the flight and used derogatory language and obscene gestures towards a crew member. As she left the plane, she allegedly spat on a crew member. Police officers met her at the gate.
These incidents are only a fraction of the harassment and violence flight staff have had to face in the past year, as mask mandates and flight restrictions brewed resentment towards airlines and their employees.
So far this year, the Federal Aviation Administration has reported 5,114 unruly passenger incidents, 73% of which were mask-related. More than 100 reports involved physical assaults, according to a news release last Wednesday.
►Unruly passengers on airlines: These 'unruly' passengers spit, punched and kicked at airline crew members. Now, they face hefty fines.
Unruly passenger cases spiked after the U.S. introduced a mask mandate on airplanes and in airports on Feb. 1. The mandate is set to remain in place until at least Jan. 18.
While the FAA cannot prosecute unruly passengers, it can impose fines to the tune of $37,000 per violation for these cases.
"The rising violence at airports shows that we must finally increase penalties for unruly passengers that assault airline workers, to include federal felony prosecution and ‘no-fly list’ status for passengers that break the law," says Richard Johnsen, chief of staff to the international president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, a union representing gate agents.
Johnsen also points out difficulties within the airline labor force, which will likely be exacerbated by increased holiday travel and struck by labor shortages in the travel and hospitality industry.
“While keeping the world moving during a pandemic, our nation’s frontline airline workers are now also working long hours at understaffed airports. This latest tragedy speaks to the urgent need for airlines to hire additional staff immediately, especially ahead of the holiday season,” Johnsen says.
Dawn Gilbertson and Bailey Schulz contributed. Michelle Shen is a Money & Tech Digital Reporter for USA TODAY. You can reach her @michelle_shen10 on Twitter.