An off-duty Delta Air Lines flight attendant apparently commandeered the intercom on an Atlanta-bound flight Friday night, leading to a scuffle that forced the plane to land in Oklahoma City, an airline spokesman said.
Crew members and passengers of Delta Flight 1730 subdued the man after he assaulted two flight attendants and, according to Oklahoma City police, said he was “going to take the plane down.” A passenger said other travelers described the man as strange and that he wore a helmet along with elbow and knee pads.
It was the second Delta flight diverted because of a disruptive passenger in as many days.
The packed flight Friday night was about two hours away from its destination when an announcement on the intercom advised passengers to return to their seats and prepare to don their oxygen masks, according to passenger Benjamin Curlee, 29, who was seated in the rear.
“That created quite a stir,” Curlee told CNN Saturday. “People behind me were saying, ‘Well, that’s really bad.’ I mean that only happens when the plane goes down.”
The unruly passenger was an off-duty flight attendant, according to airline spokesman Eric Zeugschmidt. Witnesses reported that the man briefly commandeered the public announcement system, leading to the on-flight scuffle. No passengers or crew were injured, the spokesman said.
A couple of minutes after the announcement, Curlee said, the captain asked that “all able-bodied men please come to the front of the plane for an emergency.”
“I feared the worst,” he said. “I prayed that God would protect my family in case I was gone.”
Curlee said he and a passenger next to him bolted from their seats to help but did not get very far.
“We got nowhere near because basically every man on the plane stepped up and was in the aisle,” Curlee said.
As they made their way to the front of the plane, Curlee said, a flight attendant said “the situation was under control” and asked them to return to their seats.
“It was very tense, very adrenaline fueled,” said Curlee, a media producer.
Once the plane landed, the unruly passenger was taken into custody and transported to a hospital with minor injuries, Oklahoma City Police Capt. Jermaine Johnson said.
Passengers had to leave the plane as bomb technicians searched and cleared the aircraft, according to Johnson.
Curlee said other passengers later described the man as “very chaotic, very weird” and “very incoherent.” A passenger sitting next to the man told Curlee “he felt very uncomfortable with the guy” who asked “a lot of very personal questions” such as his name and the spelling. The passenger told Curlee the man wrote a note to the flight attendant accusing him of being a hijacker.
Curlee said he was told the man was “dressed quite oddly,” wearing a helmet, with elbow and knee pads.
The plane remained in Oklahoma City for more than three hours, according to FlightAware and landed in Atlanta shortly after 5 a.m. Saturday.
The disruptive passenger was in the custody of the FBI. Criminal charges have not been filed, according to Johnson. CNN has reached out to the FBI for additional information.
“I was hoping to sleep on that flight and that didn’t happen,” Curlee said. “It feels very surreal … It’s a once in a lifetime event. It’s something you really always kind of in the back of your head, like, wonder if this will happen. Well today it actually did. I am very thankful that it did not end badly.”
The Federal Aviation Administration has received around 2,900 reports of “unruly behavior by passengers” this year, FAA spokeswoman Maria Njoku said in a statement.
About 2,200 of those reports involved passengers “refusing to comply with the federal facemask mandate,” Njoko said. The FAA has identified “potential violations” in 446 cases and “initiated enforcement action” in 42 cases,” she added.
FAA Administrator Steve Dickson has said the agency is “strictly enforcing a zero-tolerance policy toward passengers who cause disturbances on flights or fail to obey flight crew instructions.”
Curlee said he has “no fear of continuing to fly.”
“If anything … it really brings to light the need for a lot more awareness on the mental health crisis a lot of people are having, especially aggravated by the pandemic.”
On Thursday, Delta Flight 1131 flight from Los Angeles to New York was diverted to Detroit Metropolitan Airport because of a disruptive passenger, according to Wayne County Airport Authority spokeswoman Lisa Gass.
Gass said it appeared the passenger “did not have any criminal intent” and may have been “suffering from a medical issue.” The passenger was cited for disorderly conduct.
On June 4, a passenger attempted to breach the cockpit of a Delta Air Lines flight from Los Angeles to Nashville, forcing the plane to make an emergency stop in Albuquerque, New Mexico, according to officials. Another passenger and crew took down the man and held him until the plane landed.
The disruptive passenger was taken into federal custody, said Stephanie Kitts of Albuquerque International Sunport.
The Transportation Security Administration said Saturday that it screened more than two million passengers on Friday, the highest number since March 7, 2020.
Airline travel has been returning to pre-pandemic levels. Before the health crisis TSA screened between two and 2.5 million travelers per day.
“The growing number of travelers demonstrates this country’s resilience and the high level of confidence in COVID-19 counter measures,” acting TSA administrator Darby LaJoye said in a statement.
“TSA stands ready to provide a safe and secure screening process as part of the overall travel experience.”
CNN’s Polo Sandoval, Pete Muntean and Alec Snyder contributed to this report.