First-class passenger disrupts flight from Miami to London over mask mandate, plane heads back to MIA

129 passengers forced to rebook flight

A couple sitting in first class said the woman who created a disruption enough to have the plane turn around complained about every mask.

MIAMI, Fla. – An American Airlines flight on its way to London from Miami returned to Miami International Airport less than two hours into the flight. A female passenger in first class who wouldn’t comply with wearing a mask became disruptive on Wednesday night forcing the flight crew to turn the plane around.

The flight had to be canceled and 129 passengers rebooked.

AAL38 was in the air for 1 hour and 48 minutes according to data from www.flightaware.com and was over the Atlantic Ocean en route in its 8 hours and 35 minutes, 4,400-mile journey when it turned around.

The scheduled departure was at 7:40 p.m., and arrival at London’s Heathrow Airport was scheduled for 9:15 a.m. The flight left on time, according to the American Airlines website.

Steve Freeman was on the flight when the situation got tense. “There was a lot of drinking involved and I was nervous. She sat behind us in first class — she was a first-class passenger and was extremely abusive to the stewards,” said Freeman, who was heading home to London. “I could see the writing on the wall — they gave her a lot of warnings, so we were kind of ready for it.”

Freeman said that the crew tried to give the woman a few different masks to try. “She complained about each mask. Freeman said he didn’t think the decision to turn the plane around was about the woman not wanting to wear a mask. “It was the abusive behavior from what I saw,” he said.

American Airlines released a statement about the incident.

“American Airlines flight 38 with service from Miami (MIA) to London (LHR) returned to MIA due to a disruptive customer refusing to comply with the federal mask requirement. The flight landed safely at MIA where local law enforcement met the aircraft. We thank our crew for their professionalism and apologize to our customers for the inconvenience.”

The woman, who authorities said was in her 40s, was escorted off the plane by police, but detectives told Local 10 News she was neither detained nor arrested. A spokesperson with American Airlines said that the traveler has been added to the airline’s internal refuse list “pending further investigation.” That would mean that she is banned from traveling on any American Airlines flight indefinitely.

The federal mask mandate requires travelers to wear masks inside airports and on airplanes to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. Last August, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) extended the face mask requirement through March 18, 2022.

As of Jan. 18, 2022, airlines have reported 151 incidents of unruly passengers to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) with 92 of them related to the federal face mask mandate. In 2020, the FAA investigated 183 reports regarding unruly passengers while in 2021 that number significantly increased to 1,075 with many related to passengers disputing wearing a mask on board.


About the Authors:

Michelle F. Solomon is the podcast producer/reporter/host of Local 10's original, true-crime podcast The Florida Files and a digital journalist for Local 10.com.

Terrell Forney joined Local 10 News in October 2005 as a general assignment reporter. He was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, but a desire to escape the harsh winters of the north brought him to South Florida.