Steven Slater wore a slight smile Tuesday as he was led into a Queens courtroom to be arraigned on charges of criminal mischief, reckless endangerment and trespassing. The judge set his bail at $2,500, but it wasn't immediately clear when Slater might be able to post the money.
JetBlue Airways removed him from duty pending the investigation; the airline declined to comment on the specifics of the flight from Pittsburgh to Kennedy Airport.
Police and prosecutors said Slater, a 38-year-old airline industry veteran, lost his temper Monday afternoon after a dispute with a passenger, then fled the parked jet by deploying the emergency chute and walking across the tarmac to an unlocked door that led to the street.
At his arraignment, defense attorney Howard Turman said Slater was under stress because his mother has lung cancer. Afterward, he provided reporters with a different account of what happened aboard the aircraft than the version authorities initially offered.
Police had said Slater became angry when a passenger defied requests to stay seated, then accidentally hit him in the head with her luggage.
Turman said the dispute had begun earlier, as the flight was awaiting takeoff from Pittsburgh, when two female passengers got into an argument over space in the overhead bins. That's when Slater was struck in the head, Turman said.
After the plane landed in New York, one of the women who had been asked to gate-check her bag was enraged that it wasn't immediately available, Turman said.
"The woman was outraged and cursed him out a great deal," Turman said. "At some point, I think he just wanted to avoid conflict with her."
Prosecutors said Slater also addressed the passengers on the intercom.
"Those of you who have shown dignity and respect these last 20 years, thanks for a great ride," he said, according to prosecutors.
Slater's mother, Diane Slater of Thousand Oaks, Calif., declined to comment when contacted Tuesday by The Associated Press. Harry Niethamer, whose granddaughter was once married to Slater, said the flight attendant was not known to blow his top.
"He was always the perfect gentleman," said Niethamer, 82, of Downey, Calif. "He's more intelligent, but I guess something drove him over the wall."
Slater's actions drew some sympathy from the public.
By late morning, more than 13,000 people had "liked" a Facebook page set up in his honor, and commenters were lauding the flight attendant's stand and calling for the arrest of the disobedient passenger.
Passenger Phil Catelinet said he heard the profanity-laced announcement on Flight 1052, which he said ended with Slater saying, "I've had it." He described the announcement as "the most interesting part of the day to that point" but didn't see Slater use the exit slide or grab the beer.
It wasn't until he saw Slater on an airport train and overheard him talking about the escapade that he put it together.
"He was smiling. He was happy he'd done this," Catelinet told NBC's "Today."
Slater appeared "pretty relieved" and "seemed like he was looking forward to whatever comes next, careerwise," Catelinet told CBS Early Show.
Slater was arrested at his home in the Belle Harbor section of Queens by Port Authority of New York and New Jersey police.