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Passenger arrested after allegedly punching Hawaiian Air flight attendant in ‘reprehensible’ attack

Published: Sep. 23, 2021 at 9:53 AM HST|Updated: Sep. 23, 2021 at 9:47 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - A Hilo-bound Hawaiian Airlines flight was forced to return to Honolulu on Thursday after a passenger allegedly punched a flight attendant twice in an “unprovoked incident.”

The assault, amid a nationwide surge in attacks on airline workers, prompted swift condemnation from members of Hawaii’s congressional delegation ― who pledged a federal investigation.

Deputy sheriffs arrested the 32-year-old passenger ― Steven Sloan, Jr. ― for third-degree assault after the flight returned to Honolulu. He was transferred to the Federal Detention Center in FBI custody.

Records show he’s from the Big Island and only has traffic tickets on his record.

Sloan could face up to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000, which is the federal penalty for assaulting an airline crewmember.

According to a Hawaiian Airlines spokesperson, HA Flight 152 departed the Daniel K. Inouye International Airport around 7:30 a.m. Soon after takeoff, the passenger “assaulted one of our flight attendants, who was walking down the aisle, in an unprovoked incident.”

Hawaiian Air also said the assault “was not triggered by non-compliance with mask wearing policies. The flight attendant was shaken up but is doing well.”

Association of Flight Attendants spokesperson Taylor Garland, meanwhile, said the male flight attendant was struck twice while walking through the cabin to pick up trash. “There was no escalating incident,” Garland said. “All of a sudden from their seat (the passenger) punched a flight attendant in the chest and then swung again at the flight attendant. There’s no clear reason why.”

Garland added that “everyone is concerned” about the increase in so-called “air rage” incidents.

Hawaiian Air also dealt with a separate issue onboard a flight to Seattle on Thursday afternoon.

Officials said approximately two hours after takeoff, the captain aboard HA Flight 22 decided to fly back to Honolulu after a passenger “refused to comply with the federal mask mandate and caused a disturbance to other guests.”

The plane returned to Oahu just before 6 p.m. with authorities meeting the aircraft upon arrival.

Passengers were deplaned as Hawaiian Air worked to replace the crew and set a new departure time.

In the incident on Thursday morning, the pilot rerouted the plane to Honolulu and landed about 8 a.m.

Resident Bill Paris was on the flight and shot video of the passenger being handcuffed and escorted away. He said the suspect appeared to be a resident. “We were all shocked that this was going on, especially in Hawaii,” Paris said, adding, “You just don’t expect that to happen locally.”

The assault came on the same day that aviation industry leaders went before Congress to testify about an alarming increase nationally in unruly airline passengers.

This year alone, airline crews have reported nearly 4,300 incidents of unruly passengers to the FAA and the agency has opened 750 investigations ― four times the number typically seen in a full year.

Officials say most of the incidents involve alleged violations of a federal mask mandate.

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz called the Hawaiian Airlines assault “reprehensible” and said U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has assured him it would be “fully investigated by the FAA.”

“The assailant must be held accountable and prosecuted to the full extent of the law,” said Schatz, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation.

“There should be zero tolerance for this kind of despicable attack.”

Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Kai Kahele, D-Hawaii, presided over a House “Air Rage” hearing Thursday and said the FAA and Justice Department need to take additional steps to protect airline workers.

His deputy chief of staff was on the flight to Hilo on which the incident occurred.

“No one deserves to experience this type of violence in the workplace and it’s something that we need to take very, very seriously,” he said.

This story will be updated.

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