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Unruly passenger charged in AirTran incident

  • 47-year-old Virginia man charged with interfering with a flight crew
  • Incident happened on AirTran Airways Flight 39 from Atlanta to San Francisco
  • Flight attendants say passenger had five servings of wine, locked himself in bathroom
  • Air Travel

(CNN) -- A 47-year-old Virginia man was charged Monday with interfering with a flight crew during a flight last week in which he allegedly became intoxicated and unruly, leading authorities to scramble fighter jets and the pilot to make an emergency landing.

The incident occurred Friday when Muhammad Abu Tahir, a Pakistani national and lawful permanent U.S. resident of Glen Allen, Virginia, was aboard AirTran Airways Flight 39 from Atlanta, Georgia, to San Francisco, California.

During the flight, a flight attendant served Tahir, seated in coach, three airplane-serving-sized bottles of wine, then refused to serve him more, according to a two-page affidavit filed Monday by the FBI.

He appealed to the senior flight attendant, who granted him a fourth, then a fifth bottle, both of which he downed quickly, it said.

Tahir then went to a bathroom in the rear of the plane and closed the door, opening it a few minutes later and placing his shoes and socks outside the door, then retreating back inside, the affidavit said.

"A short time later, Tahir again opened the lavatory door revealing that he was shaving with no shirt on," it added.

When a flight attendant knocked on the door and encouraged him to leave the bathroom so others could use it, Tahir refused "and started yelling at the flight attendant that he was being disrespected," it said.

Notified of the passenger's behavior, the captain advised the senior flight attendant to enlist the help of a passenger to stand outside the lavatory in case help was needed, it said.

But Tahir continued yelling and refused to obey the crew, at one point grabbing the senior flight attendant by her arms and hands, releasing her only after a passenger interceded, the affidavit said.

By this time, a fire extinguisher had been carried to the rear of the plane for possible use against the man and a beverage cart was repositioned to contain Tahir, according to the affidavit .

While Tahir remained inside the lavatory, the pilot made an emergency landing in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where police officers took Tahir to the El Paso County Jail, where he remained Monday.

Tahir told the FBI that he felt he was being disrespected when the flight attendants denied his request for food, which was being served in business class, the affidavit said.

The charges Tahir faces will be read Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Denver and a detention hearing and preliminary hearing are to be scheduled for later in the week.

"It is crucial that the flying public obey the commands of the flight crew," said U.S. Attorney David Gaouette.

If convicted, Tahir faces up to 20 years in federal prison and a $250,000 fine, or both, as well as restitution to the airline.

The incident was the second in three days in which North American Aerospace Defense Command fighter jets were scrambled in response to a passenger deemed disruptive.

On Wednesday, NORAD escorted a Hawaii-bound plane back to its origination city of Portland, Oregon, after a passenger gave a flight attendant a note that was interpreted as being threatening.

The passenger, Joseph Hedlund Johnson, 56, told the FBI he hadn't intended to scare anyone with the note, which began, "I thought I was going to die," and referenced the television show "Gilligan's Island."