London-bound flight returns to Miami after First Class passenger refuses to wear mask

Jan 21, 2022

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We’ve all had our share of flight cancellations, but usually not at 31,000ft in the air while we’re sat on it.

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In one of the odder travel stories you’ll read this year, a Heathrow-bound Boeing 777 carrying 129 passengers and 14 crew members returned to Miami International Airport (MIA) this Wednesday after only an hour of flight time when a first-class passenger became disruptive over a refusal to wear a mask.

Related: The 10 passengers I hate getting stuck next to on a plane

Trouble erupted when the as-yet-unnamed woman in her forties declined to follow the federal mask mandate, becoming unruly enough for American Airlines staff to cancel the flight and re-route back to Miami.

The flight, which departed Miami International Airport at about 7:40 p.m. local time, was only 500 miles into its 4,400-mile journey at the time of the onboard incident.

According to eyewitnesses, the woman in question had been asked to try on two different masks when she became increasingly irritable with the flight crew.

“She sat behind us in first class — she was a first-class passenger and was extremely abusive to the stewards,” fellow passenger Steve Freeman told Miami-based news channel WPLG. “I could see the writing on the wall — they gave her a lot of warnings, so we were kind of ready for it. She complained about each mask.”

When the flight touched back down at Miami International Airport, the woman in question was not arrested as it’s believed she did not break local law. She was, however, put onto an internal no-fly list by American Airlines pending further investigation.

Related: How pilots handle disruptive passengers

“Flight 38 with service from Miami (MIA) to London (LHR) returned to MIA due to disruptive customer refusing to comply with the federal mask mandate. The flight landed 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 carrier said in a statement.

As well as offering an apology, the airline is believed to have helped the remaining 128 passengers, many of whom had to stay in Miami overnight, for sorting out overnight accommodation following the drama in the skies.

“They looked after us,” one other passenger, Theresa Green, told reporters. “They put us up in a nice hotel. I’ve had a good day. So I’m good. I got to see Miami, so it’s all good.”

Related: If you need to wear a face mask on your next flight, these are your choices

Other passengers were less content with how the airline handled the situation, with one telling CBS4 how they weren’t even told the reason for the turnaround in mid-air: “We weren’t given any instructions, just told that we had to go back and now we can’t get our luggage. They wouldn’t really say anything and I don’t think they told the flight attendants anything because all they would say is there was an extreme incident and they had to turn around,’ said another passenger.”

The incident has certainly not come at a good time for American Airlines, whose own CEO Doug Parker publicly challenged the mask mandate last month. Speaking during a Senate Commerce Committee hearing, South Western CEO Gary Kelly said: “I think the case is very strong that masks don’t add much, if anything, in the air cabin environment. It is very safe and very high quality compared to any other indoor setting.”

Echoing the sentiments of his South Western counterpart, Parker added: “I concur. An aircraft is the safest place you can be. It’s true of all of our aircraft — they all have the same HEPA filters and airflow.”

The mask mandate has been a source of controversy for flyers, particularly after a spate of incidents involving passengers being removed from flights before take-off due to a refusal to wear a mask.

According to the Federal Aviation Administration, airlines reported nearly 6,000 incidents involving unruly passengers last year and 151 in the first two weeks of this year, 92 of which were related to face masks.

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