Remember that flight from Oregon that was on the way to Hawaii, then turned around and returned to its point of departure after an unruly passenger alarmed the flight crew? You know, the one where two F-15 fighter jets escorted the plane back to Portland?
New details are emerging, and it’s freakin’ unbelievable.
He’s now being charged with “interference with the performance and duties of a flight crew member or attendant.” The criminal complaint included a 13-page affidavit from federal officials, which explains how the whole mess happened.
Apparently the defendant, Joseph Hedlund Johnson, boarded the Maui-bound flight with his girlfriend, and got angry when he wasn’t allowed to stow his bag under his exit-row seat. About forty-five minutes later, he handed a sealed comment card to a flight attendant. The flight attendant opened it, read it, and passed it on to the lead flight attendant, who then gave it to the captain.
Here’s the comment card note that caused all the ruckus:
“I thought I was going to die, we were so high up. I thought to myself: I hope we don’t crash and burn or worse yet landing in the ocean, living through it, only to be eaten by sharks, or worse yet, end up on some place like Gilligan’s Island, stranded, or worse yet, be eaten by a tribe of headhunters, speaking of headhunters, why do they just eat outsiders, and not the family members? Strange … and what if the plane ripped apart in mid-flight and we plumited (sic) to earth, landed on Gilligan’s Island and then lived through it, and the only woman there was Mrs. Thurston Howell III? No Mary Anne (my favorite) no Ginger, just Lovey! If it were just her, I think I’d opt for the sharks, maybe the headhunters.”
The pilot read the note, remembered Mr. Johnson as the passenger who had been upset earlier about his bag, and interpreted the note as a threat against the plane. He turned the aircraft around and headed back to Portland, telling the passengers that there was a mechanical problem. NORAD sent two fighter jets to escort the plane back safely.
According to the affidavit, “Johnson stated that he didn’t think anyone would open it during the flight. He told me that he thought the card was going to be taken back to an office somewhere, opened, and everyone in the room would ‘get a laugh’ from it, and that perhaps he’d even get some frequent flyer miles out of it. Johnson stated he didn’t intend to scare anyone and he would not have written his name on the card if it was a threat. Johnson stated that he felt bad about what had happened and that he was sorry.”
The crime that Mr. Johnson has been charged with carries a maximum penalty 20 years in prison and up to a $250,000 fine. That’s right — because of his bizarre comment card note, he could spend up to two decades in prison.
Give me a freakin’ break. Clearly this guy is a nutcase, but I certainly wouldn’t consider this a felony offense. If anything, the pilot was overly cautious about strange behavior, and arguably may have overreacted. After the so-called “Underwear Bomber” incident on Christmas Day, people in the air travel industry are a little jumpy.
I don’t, however, think it’s fair to punish one kooky passenger with such a serious penalty, when he didn’t reasonably expect the flight crew to feel threatened. He didn’t expect the crew of the plane to read the note mid-air, so he certainly wasn’t trying to alarm anyone in the air. The fact that the crew took the initiative to read a comment card, and interpreted in a way he didn’t intend, shouldn’t send this man to prison.
I sure as hell wouldn’t want to fly with the guy, but that’s because I think he’s an idiot, not because I think he’s a terrorist.