Woman sentenced to 15 months for punching Southwest Airlines flight attendant

Woman sentenced  to 15 months for punching Southwest Airlines flight attendant
The passenger who knocked out two of the Southwest worker’s teeth was also ordered to pay more than $26,000 in restitution

A California woman who punched a Southwest Airlines flight attendant mid-flight and broke her teeth has been sentenced to 15 months in prison.

The Sacramento woman, Vyvianna Quinonez, 29, was also ordered to pay $26,000 (£20,587) in restitution and will also be required to serve three years of parole after her release from federal prison, according to a release from the US Attorney’s Office in San Diego.

The 29-year-old, whose violent assault on the flight attendant was captured in a viral video that was circulated widely following the May 2021 incident, had pleaded guilty in December to a charge of interfering with a Southwest Airlines flight attendant.

Initially, Quinonez had been charged in federal court with one count of assault resulting in serious bodily injury, both considered felonies, but she was later able to reach a plea bargain with prosecutors that resulted in her current conviction.

The motivation for the 29-year-old passenger’s unprecedented attack reportedly stemmed from an argument between Ms Quinonez and the flight attendant, who had repeatedly asked the woman to follow standard inflight instructions, including putting her tray up, buckling her seat belt and putting her face mask on properly.

Ms Quinonez initially filmed the altercation with the flight attendant, who was unnamed in the court documents, and then a separate video surfaced which caught the subsequent attack on the Southwest Airlines employee.

In the 23 May 2021 video, Ms Quinonez can be seen getting up from her aisle seat and crossing over to throw several punches at the flight attendant, most of which land square in her face.

Passengers onboard the flight could be seen in the video trying to disarm the angry passenger, but she still managed to pull the hair of the employee and cause her serious injury.

Court documents from the prosecution later revealed that the airline worker was taken to hospital after the flight and required two of her teeth to be replaced by crowns, while three of her teeth were chipped and needed to be repaired by surgery. She was also left with swelling on her face and bruising and a cut under her left eye.

Ms Quinonez was also ordered to pay a $7,500 fine.

Part of the presiding judge’s impetus for handing down the 18-month sentence to the 29-year-old, an assistant for the US attorney told The New York Times, was a strong consideration for “general deterrence”.

“He explained that the victims included not just the flight attendant victim and Southwest Airlines, but all passengers on the plane that day and flight attendants working in the industry,” said Jacklyn Stahl in an email to The Times.

General deterrence was also an angle earmarked by Southwest Airlines. In a letter to the sentencing judge, a Southwest executive laid out why they believed that given the high-profile nature of the assault, which they characterised as “sickening”, it should be met with serious consequences.

“This specific passenger created a situation onboard Flight 700 that jeopardised the entire flight, and created an unsafe environment,” the executive wrote. “Given the widespread news coverage of this incident, Southwest hopes that the ultimate sentence imposed in this matter will serve as a deterrent for others who may contemplate engaging in similar dangerous behaviour.”

The defendant, for her part, attempted to sway the judge into delivering a lighter sentence by penning a handwritten letter from her jail cell, which highlighted the “challenges” she’d faced since the footage of her attack went viral and how she took “full responsibility for [her] actions”.

“My mistakes were broadcasted nationwide news and I have been completely disappointed and ashamed of myself,” she wrote in a letter, included in court documents.

The May 2021 attack on the Southwest Airlines flight from Sacramento International Airport came at a time when airline employees were increasingly facing attacks from unruly and, at times, violent passengers.

The addition of Covid-19 travel restrictions seemed to only pour gasoline on an already omnipresent threat of unruly passengers.

According to data from the International Air Transport Association (IATA), incidents have been steadily rising since 2012, with the agency attributing most to be caused by intoxication and non-compliance with safety regulations.

Nationally, a similar trend has been playing out but has noticeably intensified since post-pandemic travel began taking off. According to national records maintained by the Federal Aviation Administration, in 2019 the agency docked 146 investigations into unruly passengers while in 2021 that skyrocketed to 1099.

For the 2022 year, it appears to be on track for keeping up with the previous year’s record, as approaching the halfway mark of the calendar year that agency has initiated 470 investigations into unruly or dangerous passenger behaviour.