Depending on the source — the airline or the trip organizer — the incident either was an act of mass disruption or a case of multiple teenagers wrongly blamed for the actions of a couple.
In this week’s case, the delays had already mounted for a couple of hours at Charlotte Douglas International Airport on Monday because of a mechanical issue, causing the 172 passengers to switch to another plane. The flight was ultimately delayed overnight.
According to American Airlines spokesman Andrew Trull, multiple members of a group of more than 40 passengers who originated in Boston refused to comply with the federal mask mandate, disrupted other passengers and would not listen to crew member instructions. Trull originally told The Post in an email that they were asked to leave after boarding the replacement plane, but later provided an update saying the captain decided not let the group board the new aircraft at all.
The airline said that decision came as a result of members of the group flouting mask rules, playing music with “profane” lyrics through a speaker, yelling, using foul language and failing to stay in their seats on the plane. American said workers “repeatedly” warned misbehaving passengers about penalties if they did not comply, with each member of the flight crew addressing the group three times.
“We expect our customers to comply with our policies when they choose to fly with us, and we take action when that is not the case," Trull said in a statement.
He said in an email that initial reports indicated the passengers’ behavior and mask noncompliance was “ongoing throughout the group’s travel journey, both in-airport and on board.”
A fellow passenger identified as Malik Banks told WSOC-TV 9 in Charlotte that maybe 75 to 80 percent of the people in the group — which was seated near him — “were being terrible kids.”
“They were yelling. They were cussing. They were being very obnoxious,” he said.
American said there were 43 individuals and one chaperone; the airline would not identify the passengers or provide their ages for privacy reasons. But student travel company Breakaway Beach, which organized the trip for the students, said in a statement that the group had 47 teenagers and was heading to the Bahamas to celebrate their high school graduation.
Based on information from the students and a trip leader who accompanied them, the company said the entire group was painted as “unruly” and “disruptive” because of the actions of one or two, although the exact behavior was unclear. One person was “officially escorted” off the plane, the statement said, but was not given a ticket or charged with anything.
The statement, provided by Breakaway Beach president Eugene Winer, said that while the plane sat on the tarmac during the initial delay, “some passengers including the students may have removed masks due to no air-conditioning/ventilation, quite unbearable conditions.”
Winer said that after everyone exited the first plane, the teens were not allowed to board the new one — in line with American’s updated account.
“For several hours the group was told they would not be allowed to reboard and that they would miss their graduation trip (as rebooking them would not have been possible as flights did not have availability for several days),” the statement said.
While American said customers were provided hotel vouchers, Winer said the graduates were excluded because of their age. Seventy percent of the travelers were 18, he said. The tour company booked a hotel, paid for it, and handled food and private transportation to and from the hotel, the statement said.
The airline said all passengers were given meal vouchers and later explained that “all connecting customers eligible for check-in at area hotels” were given hotel vouchers. American said that members of the group were not able to meet check-in requirements at local hotels.
Unlike many recent cases, the passengers were not kept from flying again on the airline. According to American, they were allowed on board when the flight finally took off on Tuesday — but only after employees in Charlotte confirmed with them that they could travel as long as they agreed to comply with the mask policy and crew instructions.
The airline said late Wednesday that it had reached out to all customers on the flight, including members of the group of graduates, with an apology and an offer of 15,000 loyalty miles.
Still, Winer said, the way American handled the ordeal was “incredibly disappointing.” The statement acknowledged that while any passengers who broke the rules should be removed, students who were doing nothing wrong should not have been punished. He said the company hopes the airline will learn from the situation, apologize and compensate the group for the night of missed vacation.
“The group was treated in an improper and overly harsh manner, causing unnecessary stress and aggravation to the travellers and their parents from afar,” the statement said.
Reports about the delayed flight emerged as the Federal Aviation Administration unveiled a public service announcement featuring kids talking about how adults should behave on a plane.
“Even children know it’s not safe to disrupt a flight,” the video says at the end. “The FAA has ZERO TOLERANCE for not following crew instructions.”
The agency also announced it had proposed $119,000 in fines against nine passengers for behavior that included mask violations, physical intimidation, attacks on fellow passengers and vaping. That brings the total of proposed fines this year to more than $682,000.
Since January, the FAA has received at least 3,271 reports of unruly passenger behavior, 2,475 of which involved refusing to follow the federal mask mandate. The agency has identified potential violations in 540 cases and started enforcement in 83 of those.
The agency said it was “aware of the incident” in Charlotte and “investigates all reports it receives from airlines.”
Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, told The Washington Post last month that previous tactics of de-escalating bad behavior have not worked as well in recent months. Typically, she said, flight attendants would try to calm a situation by engaging fellow passengers and using a type of peer pressure to ease tensions.
“This environment has been very different because there has been more than one bad actor on the plane,” she said. “The helpers, as we would call them, have been less willing to speak up and help add to an atmosphere of calm.”