Long delays in returning a United Airlines baggage crew to the gate at John F. Kennedy International Airport may have caused an 83-year-old woman to fall off the airplane, killing her, federal investigators said Wednesday.
United and the Federal Aviation Administration are investigating the incident, but the FAA said in a statement that it “prefers to prosecute than concur with a finding of correction,” by a regulator.
The FAA typically investigates cases involving serious health risks. If it finds a violation of its regulations, the agency typically issues a violation and in some cases fines, the FAA said.
But a correction would be more typical of enforcement action, the FAA said.
The customer, Monique Lee Nichols, of New York, was not carrying a medical device, and reports from the scene, police sources and in local media suggest that her fatal fall may have been from exhaustion.
Kennedy airport is the primary hub for United Airlines, which referred questions to the FAA.
The FAA said it could not comment because of privacy laws.
Nichols was descending the stairs to the gate on board Flight 1608 from New York on Aug. 29, when passengers noticed a disturbance and alerted the flight crew. When she reached the top of the stairs, Nichols allegedly fell backward off the plane.
Passengers restrained Nichols until help arrived, but she was taken to the hospital, where she died.
“The FAA acknowledges that the airline has sought an FAA decision on this accident,” FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said in a statement Wednesday. “In the best interest of public safety, the FAA prefers to prosecute than concur with a finding of correction in such cases.”
The commercial airline industry uses safety as an excuse for doing what’s called “runway creep,” which occurs when aircraft come too close to the end of a runway as they prepare to land.
United Airlines has reportedly agreed to improve operations, training and oversight of its security staff following an audit by the Department of Homeland Security.
The audit, which took place in March, found that a number of United security workers at JFK had falsified security paperwork, according to records reviewed by The Washington Post, and inadequately trained employees, according to a person familiar with the results of the audit.
A passenger recounted the incident at the time of the woman’s death to an aviation expert who was at the airport that day.
T. John Bransford, 70, was sitting on a flight to Hawaii with Nichols and several other passengers.
Bransford said in an interview Wednesday that Nichols was walking through the customs area when she knocked over baggage carts and was weaving in and out of the fast moving traffic.
“She was trying to get through customs,” he said. “She was being moved all over the place. The whole area was moving. She was coming forward and falling.”
Bransford said the airline should have planned security measures ahead of time to prevent the luggage from getting out of hand.
“When you move people, you have to move their belongings with them,” he said. “We’re running low on manpower.”
A United spokesman confirmed Wednesday that the company had agreed to the Department of Homeland Security audit in March.
“It did not uncover any smoking guns,” the spokesman said. “Since then, we have addressed and strengthened our culture and are continuously looking for ways to do better, including taking additional steps this week.”
“As a result of the agreement,” he added, “the company has hired one of the government’s most experienced aviation security consultants to conduct a full audit of our security system at John F. Kennedy International Airport and have implemented some immediate and additional steps to reinforce our procedures and ensure consistency across our operations.”
Bransford also said some of the bags Nichols carried during the flight, including her walker, were broken.