Unwanted emails or text messages are usually just a bother. But for one local woman traveling at San Diego’s International Airport, a series of mysterious text messages made her fear for her safety and caused her lasting emotional distress.
Ashley Barno was waiting to board her flight last April at the San Diego International Airport.
Looking at her phone, she saw the first of many text messages from an unknown sender.
“Hey, Ashley! How are you?” read the first text. “I’m good, thank you!” Ashley politely replied. “Sorry,” she added, “I’m not sure who this is.”
Barno didn’t recognize the phone number on those texts and the messages that followed made her increasingly uncomfortable. “BTW I must tell you that you are gorgeous,” wrote the unknown admirer.
“The whole time I kept asking him, ‘Who are you? How do you know who I am? How’d you get my info?’,” Barno told NBC 7 in an exclusive interview.
Then, another unwelcomed text: “You are looking very gorgeous in that gray top today.” That message prompted Barno to look for a familiar face in the American Airlines boarding area in Terminal 2. That’s when the sender identified himself as “Ahmad” and told Barno he worked for the airline.
The unwanted messages continued after Barno boarded her flight to Chicago.
Then, a text that really unnerved her. “I am on board now. Are you going to Chicago too??”
“Just knowing that he knew what I looked like, and that we were in an enclosed plane and that there’s no way out, like really, really scared me,” Barno recalled.
The unwelcome text messages continued: “Will you join me?” "Ahmad" wrote. “I really like you!! Come on join me!!"
“Not ok! Not cool,” Barno responded. “Leave me alone.”
“Ok it’s up to you, but friendship with me will be very beneficial for you,” “Ahmad" responded. “I can always give you good seats, access to the lounges, and free drinks.”
Those messages prompted Barno to ask a flight attendant for help. She said the attendant confirmed that “Ahmad” was an American Airlines employee, and was “furious” with his behavior.
The flight attendant -- who Barno said was “amazingly helpful” -- apparently alerted airline managers, because company employees escorted “Ahmad” off the plane when it landed in Chicago.
“I got off the plane, too,” Barno recalled. “I called my sister, and I was crying profusely because I just felt… I mean, the best way to describe it was, I felt naked in a public place.”
She was also scared -- and angry -- when she learned that “Ahmad” had gotten her name, cell phone number, and address from the luggage tag on her carry-on bag. Barno now assumes he was sitting next to or near her and copied that information or took a photo of her baggage tag, which did not have a flap that covered her personal information.
She told NBC 7 she has since learned that “Ahmad” had similarly harassed at least one other passenger.
Barno said an American Airlines employee called her about the incident, but she said the company ignored her subsequent requests for more information about the incident.
Barno said she wanted assurances that the airline had disciplined or fired “Ahmad”, and reviewed its training materials to assure all employees know the importance of customer privacy.
“He had too much information on people, and what he did was not OK, and not acceptable at all,” Barno said.
Frustrated by the lack of response from the airline, Barno hired an attorney and is now suing American Airlines for negligent hiring, sexual harassment and other alleged wrongdoing.
Attorney Joe Samo told NBC 7 he tried to get answers for his client from American Airlines, as well as reasonable payment for Barno’s pain and suffering, before taking legal action. “I tried for several months to work this out amicably, but I think they didn’t take it seriously, and no one responded to me,” Barno said.
The attorney hopes the lawsuit will produce more information about what happened and remind American Airlines of its duty to customers and the public.
“We’re doing this to send a message to big corporations that this behavior is not acceptable,” Samo said. “They have to train their employees better and take better precautions to make sure these things don’t happen again.”
For her part, Barno took all the baggage tags off her luggage. She also followed the advice of that very helpful flight attendant, who told her the airlines will open a lost bag and look for the owner’s information if there’s no tag on the luggage.
At the least, she says everyone should only use luggage tags that have a flap that covers their personal information.
In response to a request for comment on the incident and Barno’s lawsuit, an American Airlines spokesperson told NBC 7:
“American Airlines takes the privacy and safety of our customers very seriously. While we can’t discuss details about this individual case, we investigated the allegations and took appropriate action.”