Unruly, maskless passenger forces London-bound flight to return to Miami

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For airline staff, navigating the pandemic has meant grappling with a surge in bad behavior, ranging from temper tantrums to punching flight attendants in the face.

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Related: Grounded! What did a year without flying do to the world?

In the latest incident, 129 passengers paid a remarkable price: a maskless “disruptive customer” forced American Airlines’ flight AAL38 flying from Miami to London to turn around and go back, the New York Times reported. The reversal occurred off the North Carolina coast, after the flight had traveled about 500 miles.

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The customer, described by police as a woman in her 40s, was “refusing to comply with the federal mask requirement”, American Airlines said in a statement to the newspaper.

“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,” a police detective said, according to CNN.

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Though the outcome was dramatic in this case, such unruliness has become commonplace. “This is happening every day now,” Sara Nelson, president of the national flight attendants’ union, told the Guardian in October after a man, asked to wear a mask and stop talking on his phone, flew into a rage, stormed out of his seat and threatened to break someone’s neck.

In fact, it’s happening about 16 times a day. That’s according to Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) records, which lists 5,981 unruly passenger reports last year. A total of 4,290 of those were listed as “mask-related incidents”. This year – mere 20 days old – has already seen 151 incidents, 90 of which were mask related, though the FAA says the figure has dropped by about half since early 2021.

Last year’s incidents included a woman, who swore at flight attendants and was asked to leave, reportedly punched another woman holding a baby on her way out; a man who was duct-taped to his seat after allegedly groping a flight attendant; and a man who allegedly left a flight attendant with a concussion after punching her in the nose.

Another flight attendant, who wished to remain anonymous, described the situation in stark terms to the Guardian in September: “I go to work now and I always worry what’s going to happen, what’s going to trip somebody up, trigger their anger. It’s a whole new ballgame out there right now and it’s a different type of passenger we’re seeing.”

But there have also been moments to offer hope for better behavior: this month, an American woman noticed her throat hurting while flying from Chicago to Iceland. She went to the restroom, took a Covid test and found she was positive – so she stayed in the bathroom for the rest of the flight, she said.

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