At first, the lead flight attendant thought the middle-aged man in seat 2A on a flight to the Twin Cities was a little eccentric.

But the "antics started," the flight attendant recalled, soon after the flight took off from Atlanta in August 2019. The passenger began to sing and disrupt others, forcing crew members to physically restrain him.

Then the passenger began to kiss and touch the flight attendant's hands and arms, tugging his uniform tie and groping his genitals and buttocks, he said in an interview. When the plane touched down at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, police were waiting at the gate to interview the man, Thomas Rogers, 45, of Minneapolis.

Disruptive passengers on commercial flights have become an increasingly common problem in the two years since the outbreak of COVID-19. Many incidents go viral on social media, such as a recent case where an American Airlines flight attendant wielded a coffee pot to fend off a passenger seemingly intent on prying open the plane's exit door.

In 2021, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) received 5,981 "unruly passenger" reports, more than 70% of which involved "mask-related" issues — federal regulations require face coverings aboard aircraft. Some 1,113 investigations were launched, leading to 350 enforcement actions, according to the FAA. That compares with 146 enforcement actions in 2019, the last year before the pandemic.

So far this year, the FAA has fielded 607 unruly passenger complaints, more than half of which were disputes over masks, prompting 144 investigations and 80 enforcement actions.

Andrew Thomas, an aviation security expert and associate professor at the University of Akron in Ohio, said in an interview that for years "nobody wanted to deal with this issue, including airlines, airports and federal law enforcement had no desire to get involved."

There typically have been no consequences for such misbehavior, he said. But the pandemic and federal regulations requiring masks onboard aircraft have sparked a crisis.

Rogers was sued in November in Hennepin County District Court by the flight attendant, who alleged sexual battery, assault, public nuisance and negligence. But the civil lawsuit also names Rogers' employer — 1010data Inc., a New York-based analytics firm — because he was traveling for business at the time of the alleged assault.

Minneapolis attorney Lori Peterson has filed two suits recently on behalf of victims alleging they were sexually assaulted while flying, and claiming employers have a duty to prevent their workers from "inflicting personal injury" on others.

"Certain people won't stop unless they suffer severe consequences," Peterson said. "Even though I can't put them in jail, I can make them bleed green."

Last year, Stephen Dickson, administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, signed an order setting out a stricter legal enforcement policy against unruly passengers. Passengers who assault or threaten to assault aircraft crew or passengers now face civil fines up to $35,000 per incident.

"Dealing with a disruptive passenger used to be a rare event and a really bad day at work," said Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, in recent testimony before Congress. "But today, flight attendants and other aviation workers are aware that before every trip, every shift … when we put on our uniforms we are donning a target for abuse, harassment and violence."

Rogers, who has not been charged with a crime, denied in court documents that the sexual assault happened. Neither he, his attorney or lawyers for 1010data responded to requests for comment, and the FBI declined to comment.

As months passed and the flight attendant waited in vain for word about the case from the FBI, he said he felt traumatized and abandoned. Memories of the assault triggered a sense of embarrassment and shame.

"It still affects me to this day. I want some accountability," said the flight attendant, a Bloomington man who is not being identified because the Star Tribune doesn't name victims of sexual assault.

Alcohol as a factor

The issue of sexual assault of flight attendants and passengers aboard commercial aircraft didn't begin as a pandemic-fueled phenomenon.

In a 2018 survey of more than 3,500 flight attendants — two years before the COVID outbreak — 68% said they had been sexually harassed while at work, according to the AFA-CWA. That same year, the 14-member National In-Flight Sexual Misconduct Task Force was formed to review how U.S. airlines handle allegations of sexual misconduct involving passengers.

The group submitted a 104-page report to the U.S. Department of Transportation's Aviation Consumer Protection Advisory Committee in March 2020, recommending ways to improve training, reporting and data collection related to sexual misconduct on commercial aircraft. USDOT is now reviewing the recommendations.

Consumption of alcohol before and during a flight often contributes to unruly and sometimes violent behavior, according to the FAA.

"Alcohol has a lot to do with an entitlement mind-set exacerbating tension and stress," aboard aircraft, Thomas said. "It brings down social barriers" that could result in inappropriate conduct.

In an effort to stem disruptive passenger behavior on flights, officials at MSP Airport last fall asked concessionaires to stop serving alcoholic beverages "to go." Several major airlines ceased serving alcohol aboard flights during the pandemic, including Delta Air Lines, the dominant carrier at MSP. Delta resumed in-flight alcohol service last year.

A 35-year-old Washington County woman was flying to MSP on a Delta flight from Raleigh, N.C., in June 2021 when she alleges she was sexually assaulted by the man sitting next to her, Craig Reeves, 59, of Zimmerman, Minn.

The woman alleges in the suit that when she returned from the restroom, Reeves refused to move, slid his hand up her leg and squeezed her buttocks as she moved past him to get to her seat. The woman told police it was a "disgusting caress."

MSP airport police interviewed Reeves after the flight, noting in a report he was "stumbling" and "incoherent," and that his blood-alcohol content was 0.28% — more than three times the legal limit for driving in Minnesota. He has not been charged with a crime.

Frustrated by what she perceived as a lack of action by the FBI (which declined to comment on the case), the woman filed a civil lawsuit now pending in Minneapolis federal court alleging sexual battery, assault, false imprisonment, negligence and other claims. It names Reeves; his employer at the time, Carlisle Fluid Technologies Inc., a global company with an office in the Twin Cities; and Delta.

Court filings state that Reeves was traveling for business and rang up a nearly $100 bar tab at the Raleigh airport before the flight to the Twin Cities. Carlisle Fluid Technologies paid the bill, the complaint says, and promoted Reeves after the flight — but then fired him after the suit was filed.

Reeves' attorneys say in court filings the woman stepped on his feet while returning to her seat and that he "instinctively grabbed her by the waist and removed her from his feet," but that no other contact occurred. They did not respond to a request for comment.

Carlisle Fluid Technologies said in court documents it had no knowledge that Reeves was violent or abusive and that he was not acting "in the course and scope of employment at the time of the alleged conduct." Attorneys for the company did not respond to a request to comment.

Delta officials declined to comment on the case, but said in a statement that the airline "has zero tolerance for customers who engage in inappropriate or unlawful behavior toward other customers or Delta crew members."

In an interview, the woman said she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), for which she has sought treatment. She said she often feels claustrophobic and has disturbing flashbacks.

"I never could have imagined that just getting on a flight — like I have hundreds of times before for work, it was so routine to me — that my basic human rights would be violated," she said.