MIAMI (CBSMiami) – An American Airlines London-bound flight from Miami was forced to turn around Wednesday night after a couple refused to wear their masks.
Flight 38 was about an hour and a half into its flight to Heathrow Airport when it circled back and returned to Miami International Airport.
Publicly, American Airlines is only saying the flight returned "…due to a disruptive customer refusing to comply with the federal mask requirement."
A source told CBS4 News the couple was suspected of being intoxicated, which does not come as a surprise to CBS Travel Editor Peter Greenberg.
"As long as they are not counting the number of people getting on planes already drunk, because so many of these cases involve alcohol consumption prior to boarding the plane - if they don't address 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 was more of the problem.
WEB EXTRA: CBS Travel Editor Peter Greenberg On Flight Disruptions
The decision not to continue with the flight was made because they did not want to fly another 7 hours with passengers who are disruptive and non-compliant.
Police dispatch called for officers to meet the plane at Gate D14. Once the plane landed, more than 100 passengers were informed they had to get off the plane.
"We weren't given any instructions, just told that we had to go back and now we can't get our luggage," said one passenger.
Many on the plane had no idea why it returned to Miami.
"Disappointed. 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 one passenger.
"They just told us to get off and the police were there," said another passenger.
American Airlines issued a statement apologizing for the inconvenience.
"American Airlines flight 38 with service from Miami (MIA) to London (LHR) returned to MIA due to disruptive customer refusing to comply with the federal mask requirement. 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 flight was canceled as a result of the incident. Many passengers stayed overnight in Miami to catch the flight that was re-booked for Thursday.
Theresa Green made the most of her unexpected stay.
"They looked after us. They put us up in nice hotels," Green said. "I've had a good day. So I'm good. I got to see Miami, so it's all good."
The woman who refused to wear a mask was not arrested, however, she was put on American's internal no-fly list pending further investigation.
Airlines have frequently 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 a costly decision on the airlines part to turn the plane around and go back to Miami," he said.
He says for fliers who don't adhere to masking rules, they could face some big fines and expenses.
"That was a significant diversion 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 offensive passenger who caused the unruly incident," he said.
Last year the FAA reports 4,290 mask incidents. This year it's at 92 so far.
The FAA says unruly passenger problems have been cut in half over the last year.
"If you're taking to the skies just behave. Follow the rules. When you check-in for an airline flight you are agreeing you don't have COVID," Griff said.
The FAA will investigate the case. It could impose a fine of up to $37,000.
When we asked police why the woman was not arrested, they told us mask mandate violations are not arrestable offenses. They continued saying if there was a fight or criminal issue that would be different.
There's no word what caused this to escalate so much that the flight was turned around.
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