Man Charged in Sexual Assault of Woman on a Flight, Officials Say

A 32-year-old man was accused of sexually assaulting a female passenger during a flight, prompting it to be diverted to allow for his removal, federal prosecutors said on Friday.

The man, James Clayton Cholewinski-Boyd, a retired speedskater, was in an aisle seat on Tuesday on an American Airlines flight that was headed to Salt Lake City from Charlotte, N.C.

He was seated next to the woman, and her daughter was in the window seat, according to a federal criminal complaint.

Shortly after takeoff, Mr. Cholewinski-Boyd, who is listed in some court records as James Clayton Cholewinski-Boy, began touching the woman’s arm, despite her repeated attempts to push his hands away. Then he grabbed her crotch, the complaint said.

The woman immediately pushed Mr. Cholewinski-Boyd’s hand away and told him to stop. He put his hands up and said “sorry” before the woman notified the flight crew, according to court documents.

The woman and her daughter were moved to a different part of the plane, and the pilot diverted the flight to Tulsa International Airport in Tulsa, Okla.

After the plane landed, Mr. Cholewinski-Boyd was charged by the airport police with public intoxication, and on Friday he was also charged by federal prosecutors with abusive sexual conduct. His status was not immediately clear and court records did not list a lawyer for him.

The plane refueled in Tulsa and continued to Salt Lake City, arriving about two and a half hours later than scheduled, an American Airlines spokesman said.

The airline said it was grateful for the crew’s response in separating the mother and her daughter from Mr. Cholewinski-Boyd, requesting law enforcement and diverting the aircraft.

Reported sexual assaults aboard planes are on the rise, the F.B.I. said in a news release last year. In 2017, there were 63 in-flight sexual assaults reported, an increase from 38 in 2014.

It’s difficult to know exactly how many sexual assaults occur on flights because no clearinghouse for the data exists, and experts say sexual assaults are the most underreported of violent crimes.

One-fifth of nearly 2,000 flight attendants surveyed in 2017 said they had received a report of passenger-on-passenger sexual assault while working, but that law enforcement officials were contacted less than half the time, according to the Association of Flight Attendants-C.W.A.

Experts recommend various ways to stay safe and combat sexual assault on flights. They say passengers should keep the armrest down between seats, alert flight attendants if someone is invading their personal space and call attention to the situation if it escalates.