Passenger fined US$81,950 for kicking, spitting at crew and attempting to open cabin door

KUALA LUMPUR: A passenger has been fined US$81,950 by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for kicking and spitting at flight attendants and passengers before attempting to open the cabin door on an American Airlines flight.

This is the largest fine the agency has ever imposed for such conduct and unruly behaviour, reported US broadcaster KENS 5.

On July 7, 2021, Heather Wells, a 34-year-old woman from San Antonio, was travelling first class from Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport to Charlotte Douglas International Airport.

About an hour into the flight, after ordering a glass of whiskey, she became agitated and demanded to leave the plane, according to a lawsuit filed on June 3 in the US District Court for the Western District of Texas.

Wells then ran to the back of the plane, dropped to her knees, and began talking incoherently to passengers before crawling back toward the main cabin, the lawsuit states.

When a flight attendant approached her, Wells verbally threatened him, saying she would "hurt him" if he didn't move. She then pushed the attendant and moved toward the front of the plane, where she attempted to grab the cabin door, screaming and yelling profanities.

Two flight attendants and a passenger restrained Wells after she struck one of the attendants in the head multiple times. They used duct tape and flex cuffs to secure her to a seat, but Wells continued to kick, spit, and attempt to bite and headbutt, necessitating further restraint, including taping her mouth, according to the lawsuit.

The captain decided to proceed to Charlotte as quickly as possible, where law enforcement officers were waiting. Once on the ground, Wells continued her violent behaviour until she was sedated and removed from the plane.

Wells later told KENS 5 in San Antonio that she was experiencing mental health issues and apologised, saying: "I know that it was not rational, and I was not actually in any external danger, but at the time I was genuinely afraid for my life. Words can't express how sorry I am for the fear I caused and the people I hurt."

She said that she was held in a hospital for observation after being removed from the plane and that she does not have a lawyer. No lawyer is listed in the court documents, and American Airlines did not respond to a request for comment. It remains unclear if Wells was formally charged.

The FAA has proposed a civil penalty of US$45,000 for her violent behaviour towards the crew and passengers, US$27,950 for attempting to open the cabin door, and US$9,000 for interfering with crew duties, totalingUS$81,950. These fines were proposed in 2022, and Wells had 30 days to respond.

This incident comes in the wake of the FAA's zero-tolerance policy towards aggressive passenger behaviour. FAA data show a significant drop in such incidents: nearly 6,000 reports in 2021, falling to 2,455 in 2022, and 2,075 in 2023. So far this year, 885 cases have been reported.

In a recent statement, the FAA warned against disruptive behaviour as summer travel begins.

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