A California woman accused of punching a flight attendant in the face and breaking her teeth during a Southwest Airlines flight has pleaded guilty to a federal felony charge, officials announced this week.
Vyvianna Quinonez, 28, of Sacramento pleaded guilty Wednesday to one count of interfering with a flight crew, according to the U.S. attorney’s office in San Diego.
The attack happened on a May 23 flight from Sacramento to San Diego. During the flight’s final descent, the flight attendant approached Quinonez and asked her to fasten her seatbelt, stow her tray table and wear her face mask properly. Her failure to do so was in violation of federal rules and regulations, officials said.
Instead of complying, Quinonez began recording the flight attendant on her cellphone and then pushed the flight attendant, according to admissions in the plea agreement.
Around that time, another passenger, Michelle Manner, began recording the altercation on her cellphone. That video, which circulated widely, showed Quinonez punching the flight attendant, who then appeared dazed and bloodied while other passengers tried to intervene.
“It was scary. It was ridiculous. It was totally avoidable,” Manner said via phone Thursday. “It’s just unfortunate that it happened and went down this route.”
Union leaders condemned the attack, in which the flight attendant suffered three chipped teeth, two of which had to be replaced by crowns, officials said.
The flight attendant’s left eye was also bruised and swollen, and a cut under her eye required three stitches. She had a bruise in the shape of fingers on her right forearm.
Southwest Airlines spokesman Dan Landson said Thursday that the company appreciated federal and local authorities’ work to “bring this case to justice.”
“Southwest Airlines has a zero tolerance policy when it comes to physical or verbal abuse against its employees,” he said.
The altercation occurred against the backdrop of an alarming rise in incidents of bad behavior aboard aircraft. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, the number of investigations related to unruly passengers has skyrocketed since early 2020, with nearly 5,800 unruly passenger reports in 2021.
More than 4,100 of the cases this year were related to face masks.
Jaclyn Stahl, one of the prosecutors in the case against Quinonez, said the incidents can be difficult to prosecute because of jurisdictional issues and because witnesses scatter upon landing and crime scenes can literally fly away.
She said officials were happy with the plea agreement reached this week.
“We feel like this is a just and fair outcome considering all the factors, including the victim’s injuries and the defendant’s characteristics,” Stahl said. “The defendant took responsibility early by pleading and not going to trial.”
The initial charges against Quinonez included one count of assault, which Stahl said the government will likely move to dismiss at the time of sentencing.
An attorney for Quinonez, Knut Johnson, declined to comment Thursday.
Due to the assault, the flight attendant was not able to perform her normal duties, and the captain had to delay taxiing the airplane to the gate to wait for law enforcement officers to respond, federal officials said.
“The flight attendant who was assaulted was simply doing her job to ensure the safety of all passengers aboard the plane,” acting U.S. Atty. Randy Grossman said in a statement about the plea. “It’s inexcusable for anyone to use violence on an airplane for any reason, particularly toward a flight attendant who is there to keep all the passengers safe. We are not going to tolerate violence or interference with the flight crew, and we will pursue criminal charges against those who break the law.”
The maximum penalty for the charge against Quinonez includes 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
The ultimate sentence is up to the U.S. District Court judge, but Stahl said the parties have agreed to jointly recommend a $5,000 fine and restitution in excess of $20,000, which includes financial reimbursement to Southwest Airlines as well as paying for the victim’s physical injuries and lost wages.
They are also jointly recommending three years of supervised release, which includes no flying on commercial airlines, anger management classes and community service, she said.
Quinonez is scheduled to be sentenced March 11.
Manner, the witness who recorded the video, said that Quinonez was wrong to hit the flight attendant but that the situation had grown more “heated” than was called for and that she also wished the flight attendant had responded differently.
She commended the airline for how it handled the situation on the ground.
“It’s terrible, and there’s so much tension,” she said. “Everybody’s unsettled the past couple of years.”