Local soccer players return by car after fracas on airliner

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Men detained after flight diverts to Amarillo airport. (@amarilloglobe)

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EL CAJON, Calif. — Six local soccer players whose allegedly disruptive behavior on a Southwest flight to Chicago forced the plane to make an unexpected stop in Texas returned to San Diego County early Friday — by car.

El Cajon residents Saiman Hermez, 19, Jonathan Khalid Petras, 20, Ghazwan Asaad Shaba, 21, Essa Solaqa, 20, Khalid Yohana, 19, and Wisam Imad Shaker, 23, returned to El Cajon after being charged in an Amarillo courtroom with interfering with a flight crew, according to the Neighborhood Market Association, a group of Chaldean business owners in El Cajon.

The six men play for San Diego Chaldean Soccer League. They were allegedly arguing with a flight attendant who wouldn’t serve them alcohol during the flight bound for Midway International in Chicago on Monday night when the incident escalated. A passenger heard the defendants call the flight attendant a racist and a pig and they men also argued with a passenger seated behind them, according to a criminal complaint.

The complaint also alleged the defendants were repeatedly standing up and becoming increasingly louder and attempted to incite other passengers to join their protest. Their aggressive behavior prompted a flight attendant, who said she was in fear for the safety of the crew and passengers, to ask the pilots to divert the aircraft.

Flight 1522 made an unscheduled landing at Rick Husband Amarillo International Airport. Texas authorities were waiting to arrest the athletes when the plane landed.

The men were arrested on suspicion of interference of a flight crew, a federal crime, and were booked into Randall County Jail. The crime carries a penalty of up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Mark Arabo of the Neighborhood Business Association disputed Southwest’s account of the incident. In  a statement issued Friday, he wrote:

“We are pleased to bring back these young men who have went through hell and back. They acted irresponsibly, but the actions taken by Southwest Airlines were shameful. After discussion with passengers, as well as the young men in question we are beginning to receive a much fuller image as to what happened. There are blatant discrepancies in the story by Southwest Airlines. The response by Southwest indicates a culture of intolerance within the airline. And after consideration of the incident, we are currently looking at the possibility of a joint lawsuit.”

Arabo said the six soccer player would not be available to answer reporters’ questions on Friday.

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