A California man who was captured on video punching an American Airlines flight attendant in the back of the head on a flight from Mexico to Los Angeles has been arrested, federal prosecutors said.
Alexander Tung Cuu Le, 33, of Westminster, was charged Thursday with one count of interference with flight crew members and attendants, a crime that carries a statutory maximum sentence of 20 years in federal prison, the Department of Justice said in a news release.
The charges come after the FBI said it had detained an American Airlines passenger on suspicion of interfering with a flight crew, an incident that unfolded during a flight from San José del Cabo, Mexico, to Los Angeles on Wednesday.
American Airlines said law enforcement officers were waiting for Flight 377 when it landed in Los Angeles “due to an unruly passenger who physically assaulted a flight attendant.”
It said the aircraft was able to land safely and taxied to the gate, where officers removed the passenger.
In video shared on social media, a flight attendant walks away from a passenger after appearing to have said: “Yeah, that’s a no.” The passenger runs up and appears to sucker punch the attendant in the back of the head, prompting other passengers to cry out, with one shouting: “Oh my God!” It was not immediately clear what led up to the incident.
The Justice Department shed light on what was alleged to have occurred in the lead-up to the incident.
Le was alleged to have initially gotten up from his seat around 20 minutes after takeoff while flight attendants were conducting food and beverage service, the department said, citing an affidavit filed with the complaint. He then allegedly grabbed an attendant’s left shoulder, asking for coffee, before moments later, grabbing the attendant by both of the shoulders, prompting them to “put up a defensive posture.”
The passenger then moved to the front of the plane and “allegedly loitered near the first-class cabin” before sitting in an unoccupied aisle, the department said. A different flight attendant approached Le and requested that he return to his assigned seat, it said.
Le allegedly refused to comply and instead stood up and “assumed a fighting stance,” making closed fists with both of his hands, which the flight attendant “interpreted as a threat,” the department said. The passenger was accused of swinging his arm at the flight attendant, but missed, it said.
As the flight attendant turned around to report Le’s behavior to the pilot, that’s when the passenger is alleged to have rushed toward him and punched him in the back of the head.
After allegedly assaulting the flight attendant, Le then fled toward the back of the airplane, the department said. Several passengers apprehended him near an exit row and he was moved to a different row, where his hands and legs were cuffed, it added. Authorities said Le continuously unbuckled his seatbelt, prompting flight attendants to restrain him to the seat with seat belt extenders ahead of the flight’s landing.
American Airlines said it would work closely with law enforcement in its investigation.
It also said the passenger would “never be allowed to travel with us in the future.”
“Acts of violence against our team members are not tolerated by American Airlines,” it said.
Thanking crew members for jumping into action, the airline said: “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.”
U.S. airlines reported a dramatic rise in disruptive or violent incidents last year, with the Federal Aviation Administration logging 5,981 “unruly passenger reports.” Most appeared to involve federal requirements that masks be worn because of the coronavirus pandemic, according to the FAA.
Andrew Blankstein is an investigative reporter for NBC News. He covers the Western United States, specializing in crime, courts and homeland security.