A man accused of rubbing a fellow passenger's breast and another who allegedly assaulted a flight attendant while on flights face criminal charges, the Department of Justice announced. The grand jury indictments come after federal officials said they would step up enforcement against bad behavior in the skies.
Ivan Lopez, Jr., 26, was on United Airlines flight from Las Vegas to Dulles International Airport, outside Washington, D.C., on Christmas Eve when he allegedly rubbed the breast of the passenger sitting next to him, who was asleep, according to court documents. The passenger woke to find his hand on her breast, the documents state, and yelled "get away from me!" at Lopez.
A flight attendant told investigators Lopez admitted to her he had assaulted the passenger, according to the documents, but Lopez told investigators he went to get the woman's attention by poking her in the shoulder so he could ask what she was listening to on her headphones, but missed her shoulder and accidentally poked her breast when there was turbulence.
According to the Department of Justice, Lopez was charged with abusive sexual contact aboard an aircraft in flight and faces up to two years in prison if convicted.
Earlier that month, authorities say, 40-year-old Elias Fethamlk was on an Ethiopian Airlines flight from Dublin to Dulles when he asked a crew member for red and white wine. The flight attendant told him no, as the plane was close to landing, and asked him to go back to his seat, according to court documents. Instead, authorities say, Fethamlk insulted her and took her picture. Fethamlk allegedly grabbed her wrists when she tried to cover her face with her hands to avoid having her picture taken and pushed her against the cabin door, according to the court documents.
Fethamlk is charged with interfering with a flight crew member and assault, and faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted.
Bad behavior on flights was on the rise last year, as authorities received nearly 6,000 reports of unruly passengers. Out of those incidents, the Federal Aviation Administration opened investigations into 1,081. The agency has initiated enforcement actions — it can only request civil penalties, not initiate criminal prosecutions — in 350 cases. Criminal charges are up to law enforcement. In August, FAA administrator Stephen Dickson told airport leaders that many passengers had been interviewed by local police and released without charges.
The FAA and Department of Justice announced last fall that they would work together to find a way to take legal action on what the agencies termed "egregious" cases. As of November, the FAA had.
So far in 2022, the agency has received 151 reports of unruly passenger behavior.
Kathryn Krupnik contributed to this report.