An American Airlines flight from New York to California made an emergency landing in Denver after a passenger assaulted a flight attendant, authorities said.
Flight 976 was heading from John F. Kennedy International Airport to John Wayne Airport in Orange County, California, but was diverted to Denver International Airport because of the incident, the airline said.
Law enforcement removed the passenger at the gate, American Airlines said, and the flight continued to California. The flight attendant was reportedly taken to a hospital, but details on her condition weren't immediately released, The Associated Press reported.
According to witnesses, the man was sitting in the business class of the cabin. A passenger who was seated nearby told NBC Los Angeles that they heard the flight attendant say, "Sir, get back," before she was assaulted about halfway through the trip.
“Someone punched a flight attendant in the nose, broke her nose,” Liv Johnson told NBCLA. Johnson said she saw the man being duct taped to his seat before the plane was diverted to Denver.
At least two passengers who spoke with NBC said they saw the flight attendant walking down the aisle after the assault with blood spattered on the outside of her mask, "which God bless her she was still wearing," one witness said.
Mackenzie Rose, who was also on the flight, said the man was angered over a mask dispute. She said she was under the impression that the man may have been under the influence of alcohol or "a substance."
"If you're not prepared to wear a mask, you're not prepared to fly is kind of the moral of the story," Rose said. She added that it was inappropriate for a man to hit a women, saying, "fists and violence is never the way to handle anything."
The passenger's identity has not been released, and no details were immediately available about charges.
“Acts of violence against our team members will not be tolerated by American Airlines," it said in a written statement. "The individual involved in this incident will never be allowed to travel with American Airlines in the future, but we will not be satisfied until he has been prosecuted to the full extent of the law. This behavior must stop, and aggressive enforcement and prosecution of the law is the best deterrent."
The assault comes amid a surge in unruly airline passengers this year, who sometimes become violent. Federal Aviation Administration data shows the agency has received nearly 5,000 reports of unruly behavior by passengers so far this year, the vast majority — 3,580 reports — involve disputes over masks.
The FAA said it is investigating 923 other cases this year — nearly three times the number of investigations started in 2019 and 2020 combined. In January FAA Administrator Stephen Dickson announced a “zero-tolerance policy” in which passengers can face immediate enforcement action instead of warnings.
Law enforcement was investigating the assault and the FBI and FAA are investigating as well.