American Airlines planes

American Airlines jets at Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix. 

PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5/AP) - Two women accused of starting an in-flight altercation over alleged racial slurs that forced the plane to land in Phoenix now face federal charges of assault and interfering with a flight crew.

The incident happened on Feb. 24 on an American Airlines flight from Dallas to Los Angeles. Phoenix Police Sgt. Mercedes Fortune said the women were using racial slurs when a passenger asked them to stop using the language. Kelly Pichardo, 31, allegedly spit at the man, who then began recording them. Fortune said Leeza Rodriguez, 30, then hit the man’s hand to stop him from recording. The disturbance led to the pilot being forced to make an unscheduled landing at Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport.

When the flight landed, officers with the Phoenix Police Department arrested Pichardo and Rodriguez, who are both from the Bronx, New York, saying they verbally and physically assaulted other passengers and crew members. The flight then continued to Los Angeles and arrived without further incident.

Now, the women are being charged in federal court. Pichardo appeared at a virtual hearing Wednesday and was charged with assault and interfering with a flight crew member. Rodriguez is scheduled to appear next week on the same charges. A grand jury previously indicted the pair.

A conviction on interfering with a flight crew member could carry a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. A conviction for simple assault could mean a maximum penalty of six months in prison and a $5,000 fine.

American Airlines spokesman Derek Walls called the women's behavior "disturbing and unacceptable" and said in a statement that they were placed on their "internal refuse list pending further investigation."

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