An American Airlines flight to London from Miami was forced to turn around Wednesday night after a couple refused to wear their masks.
Flight 38 had been en route to Heathrow Airport for about an hour and a half when it circled back and returned to Miami International Airport.
Publicly, American Airlines only says that the flight has returned “…because of a disruptive customer refusing to comply with the federal mask requirement.”
A source told CBS4 News that the couple was suspected of being intoxicated, which comes as no surprise to CBS Travel Editor Peter Greenberg.
“As long as they don’t count the number of people who are already drunk on the plane, because in so many of these cases, alcohol consumption precedes boarding the plane — if they don’t indicate that this could be the new normal for the rest of the year,” said Greenberg.
CBS4’s source says that among the couple, one person more was the problem.
The decision not to continue the flight was made because they did not want to fly another 7 hours with passengers who are a nuisance and non-compliant.
Police called for officers to meet the plane at Gate D14. When the plane landed, more than 100 passengers were told to get off the plane.
“We weren’t given any instructions, just told to go back and now we can’t get our luggage,” said one passenger.
Many on the plane had no idea why it was returning to Miami.
“Disappointed. They wouldn’t actually say anything and I don’t think they told the flight attendants anything because they would just say there was an extreme incident and they had to turn around,” said one passenger.
“They just told us to get out and the police were there,” said another passenger.
American Airlines has issued a statement apologizing for the inconvenience.
“American Airlines Flight 38 on service from Miami (MIA) to London (LHR) returned to MIA due to the disruptive customer refusing to comply with the federal mask requirement. The flight landed at MIA where the local police encountered the plane. We thank our crew for their professionalism and apologize to our customers for the inconvenience.”
The flight has been canceled as a result of the incident. Many passengers stayed overnight in Miami to catch flights that had been rebooked for Thursday.
Theresa Green made the most of her unexpected stay.
“They took care of us. They’ve put us in nice hotels,” Green said. “I had a good day. So I’m good. I have to see Miami, so it’s all good.”
The woman who refused to wear a mask was not arrested but was placed on American’s internal no-fly list pending further investigation.
Airlines have often banned passengers for the duration of the pandemic if they refuse to follow mandatory mask requirements designed to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Zach Griff is a senior reporter for The Points Guy. “It’s a really expensive decision by the airline to turn the plane over and go back to Miami,” he said.
He says that pilots who do not adhere to the masking rules could face heavy fines and expenses.
“That was a significant distraction. I can’t imagine how much that must have cost the airline and we’ll see if that cost is put on the passenger, the abusive passenger who caused the unruly incident,” he said.
Last year, the FAA reported 4,290 mask incidents. This year it is 92 so far.
The FAA says unmanageable passenger problems have halved in the past year.
“When you go up in the air, just behave. Follow the rules. When you check in for an airline flight, you agree that you don’t have COVID,” Griff said.
The FAA will investigate the matter. It can impose a fine of up to $37,000.
When we asked the police why the woman had not been arrested, they told us that violations of mask mandates are not arrestable violations. They kept saying that if there was a fight or a criminal matter it would be different.
There is no word that caused this to escalate to the point that the flight was turned around.
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