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An American Airlines passenger plane bound for London turned around mid-flight due to a mask-related disruption on Wednesday.
“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,” American Airlines said in a statement.
Local law enforcement met the flight at Miami International Airport, the airline said.
The Miami-Dade Police Department told CNN it was called by the airline regarding a female passenger who refused to wear a mask.
“Once the plane made it to the gate, the passenger was escorted off the plane by MDPD officers without incident. The passenger was then dealt with administratively by American Airlines staff,” said Detective A. Colome from the Miami-Dade Police Department.
According to flight tracking site FlightAware, the flight landed back in Miami one hour and 48 minutes after it departed.
The flight, operated on a Boeing 777 aircraft, was canceled after the incident. There were 129 passengers and 14 crew on board. There were no injuries to customers or crew members.
“We thank our crew for their professionalism and apologize to our customers for the inconvenience,” American said in its statement.
There have already been 151 unruly passenger reports logged this year, according to Federal Aviation Administration data through January 18. Of those, 92 were mask-related incidents. The agency’s tracking site shows that 32 investigations have been initiated so far this year and 4 enforcement action cases have been initiated.
Cracking down on unruly passenger behavior
In January of last year, the FAA announced a “zero tolerance” policy for unruly passenger behavior that skips warnings or counseling and goes directly to penalties, which can include heavy fines and jail time.
It is unclear whether the passenger involved in the incident on AA flight 38 on Wednesday will face enforcement action from the FAA.
The FAA has civil authority to propose fines up to $37,000 per violation for unruly passenger cases. The agency does not have the authority for criminal prosecution.
The agency referred at least 37 cases for which it had initiated enforcement action to the FBI for criminal prosecution review last year.
Last year was the worst on record for unruly airplane passenger behavior in the United States, according to FAA data.
A whopping 5,981 reports of unruly passengers were logged by the FAA in 2021. Of those, 4,290 – nearly 72% – were mask-related incidents.
The FAA notes on its website that the rate of unruly passenger incidents has dropped by about 50% since it reached record highs in early 2021. “But there remains more work to do,” the site says.
Before 2021, the FAA didn’t track the number of unruly passenger incidents reported because the number was fairly consistent. But a sharp uptick in unruly passenger behavior in late 2020 spurred the agency to begin tracking the reports in 2021.
However, the FAA has recorded the number of unruly passenger incidents that rose to the level of being investigated since 1995.
From 1995 to 2020, an average of 182 investigations were initiated per year. In 2021, the FAA initiated 1,081 investigations – a 494% increase over the historic average of investigations.