May 31, 2021 By Michael Kunzelman, The Associated Press
COLLEGE PARK, Md. (AP) — A retired Southwest Airlines pilot was sentenced to probation Friday after pleading guilty to exposing his genitals to a female first officer and watching pornography on a laptop during a flight from Philadelphia to Florida last year.
Michael Haak, 60, apologized and expressed remorse for his actions before U.S. Magistrate Judge J. Mark Coulson sentenced him to one year of unsupervised probation and a US$5,000 fine.
“It started as a consensual prank between me and the other pilot. I never imagined it would turn into this in a thousand years,” Haak said during a remote hearing.
Federal prosecutors said in a news release that Haak had never met the first officer before that flight bound for Orlando on Aug. 10, 2020. After the plane reached its cruising altitude, Haak got out of the pilot’s seat, “disrobed” and began watching pornographic material on a laptop computer in the cockpit, prosecutors said.
“As the plane continued its flight, Haak further engaged in inappropriate conduct in the cockpit, as the first officer continued to perform her duties as an assigned aircrew member,” the statement says.
The first officer submitted a statement to the court but didn’t speak during Friday’s hearing. The judge told Haak that his actions had a traumatic effect on the co-pilot and could have impacted the safety of passengers and other co-workers.
Haak “had a duty to comport himself in a much more responsible manner,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Cunningham said.
“This is not the kind of aberrant behavior that anyone should accept,” the prosecutor added.
Cunningham said the first officer “unfortunately suffered some consequences” as a result of the incident that Haak “didn’t have anything to do with,” but he didn’t elaborate.
“She had a right not to be subjected to this kind of behavior, regardless of what may have motivated it or prompted it,” the prosecutor said.
Haak was charged in April with intentionally committing a lewd, indecent or obscene act in a public place, a misdemeanor punishable by a maximum of 90 days in jail. He was charged in Maryland because it was one of the states that the aircraft passed over that day.
Federal prosecutors agreed to recommend a sentence of probation without requiring Haak to register as a sex offender. The judge wasn’t bound by that recommendation.
Haak, a resident of Longwood, Florida, was a Southwest Airlines pilot for 27 years until his retirement. His last flight for the Dallas-based airline was on Aug. 31, 2020, three weeks after the incident that led to the criminal charge.
Southwest spokesperson Chris Mainz said in a statement that the airline “does not tolerate behavior of this nature and will take prompt action if such conduct is substantiated.” Southwest only learned of Haak’s behavior after he voluntarily left the airline, according to Mainz.
“Nonetheless, Southwest did investigate the matter and as a result, ceased paying Mr. Haak any benefits he was entitled to receive as a result of his separation from (the airline),” Mainz said.
Defense attorney Michael Salnick said Haak had a sterling career as a commercial pilot and received numerous accolades and supportive letters from passengers and colleagues, including one from Southwest chairman and CEO Gary Kelly on the day of Haak’s retirement.
“We are blessed that Southwest has been your home for so many years,” Kelly wrote.
Haak accepts responsibility for his conduct and “offers no excuses,” his lawyer said in a court filing.
Salnick argued that Haak deserves a lenient sentence given his “lifetime of hard work and kindness.”
“The embarrassment and resulting publicity of this incident has in and of itself been humbling to Michael Haak and has served as punishment in many ways,” he wrote.