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Union says American Airlines flight attendant suffered broken bones in her face after an unruly passenger attacked her

The FAA keeps data on reports of unruly passengers. Between Jan. 1 and Oct. 26, there were 4,941 reports of unruly passengers across all airlines.

DALLAS — An American Airlines flight traveling from New York City to Santa Ana, California on Wednesday had to divert to Denver after a flight attendant was assaulted by an unruly passenger.

The airline confirmed the incident happened on AA flight 976 and the passenger was arrested once the plane landed and taxied to the gate. 

"This is happening far too often," American Airlines CEO Doug Parker said in a video statement following the incident. “On Wednesday evening, we had one of the worst displays of unruly behavior we’ve ever witnessed.”

A source close to the investigation told ABC News a flight attendant bumped into a passenger during the flight and immediately apologized. They said, later, that passenger approached the flight attendant punched her in the face twice. 

Paul Hartshorn Jr. is the national communications chair for The Association of Professional Flight Attendants, the union that represents American's 25,000 flight attendants. 

“It’s not surprising," Hartshorn said. "We’ve been dealing with this for 20 months now... these physical attacks on our crew members, on our flight attendants… on our flights.”

Hartshorn said the flight attendant who was attacked sustained broken bones in her face and is returning home to heal. 

Both Hartshorn and Parker said the union and airline, respectively, will make resources available to support the flight attendant who was injured. Parker said American is working with law enforcement and the FAA. 

"We are doing everything we can to ensure he is prosecuted to the fullest extent possible," Parker said. 

The passenger was also banned from all American flights. 

However, Hartshorn said Wednesday's incident was an awful example of a greater issue that he said needs to be addressed. 

“Since the pandemic began, we’ve been seeing an increase in flight attendant assaults," Hartshorn said. "We’ve been seeing verbal assaults on our flight attendants every day, it’s safe to say, and physical attacks increasing.”

The FAA keeps data on reports of unruly passengers. Between Jan. 1 and Oct. 26, there were 4,941 reports of unruly passengers across all airlines.

In July, the TSA restarted its self-defense training for flight crew members. The program was created after 9/11 and was stopped during the pandemic. 

"There has been a pretty amazing take rate for those, not just at our airline but across the industry," Hartshorn said. "It’s a shame that we have to do something like that, but we’re thankful that the TSA has reimplemented those classes.”

The FAA's data showed 3,580 mask-related incidents were reported. 

It's still unclear whether Wednesday's incident involved masks or whether or not the passenger had been drinking. 

In general, Hartshorn said the federal mask requirement, which the union supports, and more to-go alcohol in the airport have both contributed to the issue. 

"We’ve seen passengers boarding intoxicated at levels we’ve never seen before, as well as passengers carrying on their own alcohol and sneaking drinks during flight," Hartshorn said. "And the biggest issue is we see a division in this country right now, and that doesn’t stay on the ground when the airplane takes off.”

Hartshorn said the union would like to see a national no-fly list, so passengers can't just get on a flight on another airline after attacking a crew member. He said they'd also like to see more law enforcement and security in airports so airline staff don't have to bear the burden of enforcing controversial rules as well as more signs put up about federal aviation policies. 

"We've got to get a handle on this," Hartshorn said. "We've got to stop abusing each other."