'Sit down, Karen': Patricia Cornwall faces assault charge after mask dispute on Delta Air Lines

A Los Angeles woman is facing a federal assault charge after she allegedly punched and spit on a man aboard a recent Delta Air Lines flight following a mask dispute.

Patricia Cornwall was detained Thursday at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport after passengers told authorities that she had caused a disturbance on Flight 2790 from Tampa. Video shared to social media appears to show Cornwall, 51, slapping a male passenger across the face during an argument over masks. The man told investigators that the maskless woman, who mockingly compared herself to Rosa Parks and told him to put on his mask as he was eating and drinking, also spit on his face and head, according to a criminal complaint unsealed Monday.

 

"This disturbance led to the injury of fellow passengers and Delta employees," the Atlanta Police Department said in a news release.

The complaint, filed in the Northern District of Georgia, accuses Cornwall of "assault by striking, beating, or wounding" the male passenger, who is identified only as "R.S.M." Cornwall, who made her first court appearance Monday, could face up to a year in prison and a fine up to $US100,000 if she is found guilty of the Class A misdemeanour. She did not submit a plea during her initial court appearance.

Cornwall declined to comment Tuesday but said she and her attorney, Millie Dunn, would issue a public statement in the coming days. Dunn did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

"I appreciate you reaching out to me as I do feel my side needs to be told," Cornwall wrote in a text message to The Washington Post.

Drake Castañeda, a Delta spokesman, confirmed to The Post that "Flight 2790 from Tampa to Atlanta was met by law enforcement after an unruly customer disturbance during flight."

"Situations like these are rare for the vast majority of our customers and Delta has zero tolerance for unruly behaviour at our airports and aboard our aircraft," he said in a statement.

Anthony Fauci, the nation's top federal infectious-disease expert, recently indicated that mask-wearing on planes could be here to stay during a time when the coronavirus is surging in the United States again because of the rapidly spreading omicron variant. Fauci, the chief medical adviser to President Joe Biden and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said Sunday that he would welcome a requirement that airline passengers be vaccinated. But he stressed that masks and air filtration have made it safe for people to be on airplanes. Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly argued in a Senate hearing this month that masks "don't add much, if anything, in the air cabin environment."

Even with the extension of the federal mask mandate on transportation until at least March 2022, aviation authorities continue to battle a wave of disruptive passengers - specifically confrontations stemming from disputes over mask-wearing. The Federal Aviation Administration says it has received 5,553 reports of unruly behaviour in 2021, the vast majority of them related to incidents over mask regulations on flights. Attorney General Merrick Garland issued a memo last month directing federal authorities to prioritise the prosecution of crimes on planes.

On Thursday, Cornwall was returning from the restroom when she saw a flight attendant conducting beverage service and blocking the aisle, according to the complaint. After Cornwall asked the flight attendant to help her find her seat, the flight attendant requested that she find an available seat until the conclusion of the beverage service, the complaint says.

"What am I? Rosa Parks?" said Cornwall, who is White, according to the complaint.

Upon hearing the comment, the complaint says, the male passenger sitting in seat 37C told Cornwall "it was an inappropriate comment and that she 'isn't Black . . . this isn't Alabama and this isn't a bus.'" He then called her a catchall term popularised in recent years to describe an entitled, demanding White woman who polices other people's behaviour.

"Sit down, Karen," he said to Cornwall, according to the complaint.

Video posted to Twitter from @ATLUncensored appears to match the description of the incident involving Cornwall. Authorities declined to confirm that Cornwall is the woman seen in the video, which has been viewed 9 million times.

After the man calls the woman a "Karen," the female passenger yells at the man to put on his mask as he is eating and drinking, the video shows. The woman, who has her mask pulled below her chin, calls him a sexual slur, which is then repeated by the man toward her.

When a flight attendant asks the woman to mask up, she ignores the order and asks the flight attendant to tell the male passenger to "mask up." The man, who still has his mask off, calls the woman another derogatory term, according to video - and that is when she slaps his face.

"Now you're going to jail! That's assault," the man exclaims, according to video. "You're going to jail as soon as we get to Atlanta."

The woman then appears to spit in the man's face.

The two passengers were separated only by the beverage cart, but they continued to lob expletives at each other as other passengers stood up during the chaotic situation.

"I will put my mask on when you put your mask on!" the woman says, according to video.

Toward the end of the video, one passenger is heard saying that the woman "went crazy on the airplane."

Federal Magistrate Judge Christopher Bly on Monday set Cornwall's bond at $US20,000 but allowed her to fly home to Southern California if she followed the judge's requirements, CNN reported. However, Cornwall won't be flying home on Delta. The airline placed the woman on its no-fly list.

The Washington Post

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