Fight on Delta flight from Tampa to Atlanta started with Rosa Parks comment and masks, feds say

A Tampa man helped restrain the unruly passenger, who was arrested on federal assault charges.
Flight attendants hand out refreshments to a packed Delta Airlines flight traveling from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport to Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport in May.
Flight attendants hand out refreshments to a packed Delta Airlines flight traveling from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport to Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport in May.
Published Dec. 29, 2021|Updated Dec. 29, 2021

A drink cart, an unworn mask and a comment about civil rights activist Rosa Parks led to violence on a Delta Airlines flight last week from Tampa to Atlanta, according to court documents and a passenger from Tampa who helped restrain a woman.

Delta 2790 departed from Tampa International Airport two days before Christmas. Passenger Patricia Cornwall was returning from the restroom and found the aisle blocked by the beverage cart, according to a federal criminal complaint filed Monday in the U.S. District Court’s Northern District of Georgia.

When a flight attendant asked Cornwall to find a different, open seat to wait in until the beverage service was over, the complaint states that Cornwall responded with, “What am I, Rosa Parks?”

The cart was stopped near the seat of Russell S. Miller, who “believed Cornwall’s comment was inappropriate,” the complaint states. Miller told Cornwall she “isn’t Black ... this isn’t Alabama and this isn’t a bus.”

When Cornwall then turned her attention to Miller, he told the woman to “sit down, Karen,” Miller later recounted to an FBI agent. That agent wrote that “additional derogatory comments were made by both parties involved.”

Video captured by another passenger, and referenced in the complaint, shows Cornwall standing over Miller, who is seated. Both are maskless and shouting.

“Put your mask on. ... Don’t you dare talk to me like that,” Cornwall says in the video.

“I’m eating. ... Do you want me to pour this over your head?” Miller says.

When a flight attendant in the video tells Cornwall to “mask up, now,” Cornwall demands Miller put his mask on, too. “Cornwall then struck (Miller) with a closed fist ... causing visible injury,” the complaint states, “then spit in (Miller’s) face and head area.”

Reached by phone, Cornwall declined to comment but said she’d pass along the reporter’s inquiry to her lawyer.

Miller suffered a scratch on his face, an Atlanta Police Department report states, and another passenger was burned by hot water because of “the suspect’s disruptive actions.”

Amilcar Delgado, a delivery worker for a furniture company in Tampa, was seated nearby on the first leg of a family trip to Argentina.

“I had already noticed (Cornwall),” Delgado said, “because I’d made a comment to my wife that this woman was up walking around with no mask on.”

When the fight broke out, he said, a flight attendant turned to him and asked for help. He stood up, put the woman’s arms behind her back and moved her to the rear of the plane.

“I actually have experience,” Delgado said, “because I used to do security in bars and restaurants in New York.”

Flight attendants tried to restrain Cornwall with zip ties, but after she tried to kick one, they gave up, Delgado said. They asked Delgado if he’d keep an eye on the woman instead, so he spent the rest of the flight sitting alone with her in an empty row in the back of the plane.

“She actually calmed down and was telling me about her two kids, and that she was going home to California to meet her mother for Christmas,” Delgado said. “She kept saying, ‘Please don’t let them hurt me,’ and I told her, ‘I’ll do my best.’ ”

Then, Delgado said, the woman took out a vape pen, inhaled and released a large cloud of vapor. The flight attendants ignored it, he said.

Flight attendants are trained in de-escalation techniques, but sometimes situations still escalate beyond what the crew alone can handle, said Taylor Garland, a spokesperson for the Association of Flight Attendants union. In those cases, flight attendants are “trained to identify able-bodied passengers that they can call on during an emergency,” she said. “Passengers should only get involved in incidents onboard when a crewmember instructs them to.”

Delgado said he and his wife received a $50 credit, which he believes all the passengers on the flight received for their inconvenience. He said he was later given an additional $150 voucher for assisting the flight attendants.

Atlanta police arrested Cornwall when the plane landed. FBI agents later took her into custody. The federal government has jurisdiction over crimes that happen on commercial flights within the U.S. She is charged with assault aboard an airplane and faces a fine and up to a year in prison if convicted.

Cornwall was released on $20,000 bail. She appeared in federal court Monday, and was ordered to surrender her passport, abstain from alcohol and not to fly except to return home to Los Angeles.

In November, Attorney General Merrick Garland directed U.S attorneys to prioritize the prosecution of crimes on commercial flights after airlines and federal officials reported a surge in unruly passengers.

That same month, the Federal Aviation Administration fined 10 passengers a total of $225,287 for what it said was “alleged unruly behavior” on planes. Four of those incidents, including a woman accused of shoving a flight attendant as she was kicked off a plane in Tampa, involved passengers refusing to comply with the FAA’s mask requirement.

According to a survey by the Association of Flight Attendants in July, nearly 1 in 5 flight attendants said they were in a “physical incident” this year with a passenger.