LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A JetBlue pilot who caused a disturbance on board a flight to Las Vegas, forcing the plane to make an emergency landing in Texas, has been suspended while the FBI investigates the incident, the airline said on Wednesday.
Flight 191 from New York was diverted to Amarillo, Texas, on Tuesday following what federal authorities described as erratic behavior by the captain, who passengers said had to be restrained after he pounded on the locked cockpit door.
“He has been removed from all active duty and responsibilities pending further investigation,” JetBlue spokeswoman Tamara Young said, declining to comment further on that investigation.
JetBlue, which had said on Tuesday the flight was diverted due to a “medical situation” involving the captain, identified the pilot as Clayton Osbon, a 12-year veteran of the airline.
Passengers who were on the plane described a chaotic mid-flight scene in which a man in a JetBlue uniform, apparently locked out of the cockpit, began banging on the door and demanding to be let inside. Passengers subdued him.
“People behind me, a bunch of big guys, started going up there and trying to help, and we found out that the guy banging was actually the pilot, and he was trying to get into the cockpit because the other co-pilot had locked him out,” passenger Grant Heppes told Reuters.
“Everybody seemed pretty nervous,” he said. “Nobody was sure what was going on. Everybody seemed very concerned.”
JetBlue has said that following a medical situation with the captain, another captain who was traveling off-duty entered the flight deck prior to the landing and “took over the duties of the ill crew member once on the ground.”
JetBlue CEO Dave Barger, meanwhile, said that there had been no earlier signs of problems with the pilot.
“The captain’s now in the hands of medical care, obviously, under the custody of the FBI,” Barger told NBC’s “Today” program.
“I’ve known the captain personally for a long period of time, and there’s been no indication of this at all,” Barger said, adding that the pilot was a “consummate professional.”
The incident was the second to involve erratic behavior by a JetBlue crew member since August 2010, when a flight attendant upset after an altercation with a passenger bolted from a plane by deploying and sliding down the inflatable emergency chute.
Lawyers for the flight attendant in that incident, Steven Slater, later told reporters he had acted in part out of frustration with the chaos of air travel and that he was under stress because his mother was suffering from lung cancer.
The incident also came just two weeks after a female flight attendant started ranting about a possible crash over the public address system of an American Airlines plane. She, too, was subdued by passengers and crew as the plane returned to the gate at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.
In Tuesday’s incident, the Federal Aviation Administration cited an “onboard medical emergency” as the reason for the diversion, and said preliminary information showed the co-pilot became concerned that the captain had “exhibited erratic behavior during the flight.”
“The captain had exited the cockpit during the flight, after which the co-pilot locked the door,” an FAA statement said. “When the captain attempted to enter the locked cockpit, he was subdued by passengers.”
Additional reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Cynthia Johnston