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Unruly Delta passenger tried to open exit door in flight, complaint alleges

SEATTLE — An unruly passenger who authorities say was trying to open an exit door on a Delta Air Lines flight to Beijing fought with the cabin crew and a passenger and was conked over the head by a flight attendant with two wine bottles, a criminal complaint alleges.

Joseph Daniel Hudek IV, a 23-year-old passenger from Florida, was arrested after the plane returned to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, FBI spokeswoman Ayn Dietrich-Williams said.

The suspect made an initial appearance in federal court Friday in Seattle, hearing the criminal complaint of one count of interfering with a flight crew. That carries a penalty of up to 20 years in prison and fines up to $250,000.

The battle in the galley near the cockpit of Delta Flight 129, which was headed to Beijing with 210 passengers and 11 crew aboard, began as the airliner cruised near Canada’s western coast about an hour into the flight.

According to a criminal complaint released Friday, Hudek — who was traveling in first class on a dependent travel pass, a perk afforded to family members employed by the airline — attempted to open the forward exit door on the right side of the airliner.

Two flight attendants tried to subdue Hudek but were pushed away, and he continued his attempt to open the door. According to the complaint, Hudek was able to move the door handle mechanism and push the emergency release lever halfway.

Aircraft cabin doors cannot be opened at high altitudes because of the differing pressures inside and outside the jet’s cabin, and the Delta plane was cruising at high altitude, at 32,000 feet, when the incident happened. However, at a lower altitude, according to the complaint, it was possible the door might open.

The flight attendants then signaled to passengers they needed help. During the altercation, Hudek punched a flight attendant twice in the face and hit another assisting passenger with a bottle of wine. Hudek then attempted again to open the exit door.

As the struggle continued, another flight attendant grabbed two wine bottles and struck Hudek in the head, breaking one.

“Hudek did not seem impacted by the breaking of a full-liter red wine bottle over his head, and instead, shouted ‘Do you know who I am?” or something to that extent,” according to the complaint. Hudek was able to break away several times during the altercation.

Several first-class passengers and the flight attendants eventually were able to restrain Hudek long enough to put zip-tie handcuffs on him. He remained “extremely combative” all the way back to Seattle and needed to be restrained by multiple passengers until the Delta flight landed, according to the complaint.

Three injuries

The Boeing 767-300ER, which had taken off at 5:24 p.m. PT, turned back and landed at Sea-Tac airport at 7:09 p.m. PT, flight-tracking website FlightAware shows.

The flight attendant and a passenger were taken to a hospital with non-life-threatening injuries, airport spokesman Perry Cooper said, without giving further details about the injuries.

Hudek was also injured, but declined treatment from medics and was taken into custody, Cooper said.

The flight departed again for Beijing shortly after midnight local time Friday.

Safe return

Delta described the event as a “security incident with a passenger.”

“The passenger was restrained onboard and was removed from the flight by law enforcement without further incident when the aircraft arrived back at Seattle,” the airline said in a prepared statement.

There were conflicting reports soon after the incident. Initially, two people familiar with it told CNN on condition of anonymity that the man tried to enter the cockpit, but the altercation took place just outside the cockpit door in the forward galley.

But Cooper subsequently said that was incorrect, and he and Dietrich-Williams described the incident only as an assault on a crew member.

Dietrich-Williams, the FBI spokeswoman, added there was no information to suggest that there was a national security threat.

The two people also initially said that the Boeing 767 returned to the airport under a Department of Defense escort.

But representatives from Delta and the North American Aerospace Defense Command said no such escort happened.

Lt. Commander Joe Nawrocki, a NORAD spokesman, clarified that jets were ready on the runway, but never took off. Air traffic control recordings from LiveATC.net indicated that F-15s at Portland International Airport were preparing to meet the Delta flight, but never departed.

The FBI Seattle field office maintains a regular presence at the airport, and assisted in interviewing passengers from the flight, Dietrich-Williams said.