$81,950 Fine Proposed For In-Flight Violence

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A San Antonio woman who was duct taped to a seat after a series of incidents aboard an American Airlines flight in 2021 has earned the highest ever FAA sanction for unruly behavior. Heather Wells, 34, is being sued by the agency for a total of $81,950 after an eventful flight from Dallas to Charlotte on July 7, 2021. She’s been assessed $45,000 for violence against crew and passengers, $27,950 for trying to open a cabin door and $9,000 for interfering with the crew. Wells apologized for her behavior in a television interview, blaming it on a mental health episode in which she feared for her life.

The drama began about an hour into the flight when she became agitated in her first-class seat. She reportedly ran to the back of the plane and fell on her knees before crawling back and threatening a flight attendant on the way. She then grabbed the handle on one of the front exit doors and when two flight attendants tried to restrain her, she hit one of the FAs in the head repeatedly. After they got plastic cuffs they duct taped her to her seat and taped her mouth to stop her from spitting (this was the height of COVID protocols) but she still wasn’t done. She managed to kick her legs free of the duct tape while pinned to the seat.

The captain elected to continue to Charlotte, where the other passengers were taken off the plane before law enforcement and medical personnel moved in. Wells was sedated before finally being taken off the plane to a hospital. The episode was part of an overall uptick in unruly behavior that prompted the FAA’s Zero Tolerance Policy. The agency says the skies are much calmer these days with a 60% reduction in reported in-flight mayhem since 2022.

Russ Niles
Russ Niles is Editor-in-Chief of AVweb. He has been a pilot for 30 years and joined AVweb 22 years ago. He and his wife Marni live in southern British Columbia where they also operate a small winery.

53 COMMENTS

  1. I can guarantee that the 60% reduction in reported inflight mayhem since 2022 has absolutely nothing to do with any penalty the FAA decides to enforce!

    • What is the actual reason(s) for the 60% reduction? And what is your point on the enforcement? Do nothing at all?

      • In this case she should be banned from any further airline flights. From what I have seen and other commenters have said, there is usually very little follow-up from a law enforcement end.

    • The unnecessary and arbitrary unconstitutionally enacted mask mandate was the cause of most if not all of the “inflight mayhem” from 2020 to 2022. That was the biggest reason why pt135 charter operators were so busy during that period. Notice that those incidents practically disappeared when the mandates ended. Sure there are some still occurring but nowhere near what was happening during the mandates.

      • Hi, Matt W! I’ll have to go back and check, but I don’t remember any instances of masks behaving badly – it always seemed to be people! And for that matter, people who weren’t wearing masks!

        I did notice that most of them seemed to be wearing shirts, however; maybe that’s the common element?

        Have a great day!

      • Thanks for the explanation. I had wondered why four people I knew during Covid up and died without your express permission. FWIW Boeing did some studies of air circulation several yesrs prior to the Covid mask requirement (which I too did not like, but… it was effective). Their research followed the previous SARS outbreak. Fortunately several of the commercial flights where post flight medical records were available also had excellent records of the seating of index cases (SARS infected individuals). What the research clearly showed based on exhaustive tracking of post exposure SARS ilnesses was enlightening. Not only were seat mates located adjacent to, in front of, or behind asympotmatic and symptomatic individuals at significant risk of contracting the disease, persons became ill as far as nine rows forward ad six rows behind the index person.
        IMHO, wearing a mask to prevent sgaring a deadly disease is well worth the discomfort.

        • It all comes down to what study you want to believe. I can come up with studies that say mask mandates did no good and others that said it did. All I know for sure is that with all of the new clients I flew on charters along with the owners of the planes I flew during Covid, not one of those persons reported to my company that they got Covid as a result of any lack of mask wearing aboard any plane I was in charge of. I refused to enforce any mask mandate, leaving it up to the passenger and only a handful actually wore one. I still believe wearing any mask is dangerous in a pressurized airplane in the event of a depressurization event. Even the FAA would not allow airline companies to mandate flight crews at their duty stations to wear a mask. I know this from what our POI told our company director of ops. If you tell someone they have to do something and that person doesn’t want to, rightly or not that person will eventually rebel. That was my point that I still believe that the 60% reduction in passenger cabin mayhem is not because of any FAA enforcement, but due to the government finally being forced to drop the mask mandates due to Congressional action on the federal and state level.

          • Hi again, Matt W! On the subject of why it might be okay for passengers to wear masks but not flight crew, as a seasoned charter pilot, I’m sure you’re aware that in the event of a rapid decompression, flight crew consciousness is rather important, whereas passenger consciousness is not. Passengers May black out, but will come to again when higher cabin pressures are achieved. It’s much the same reason why flight crew are required to be belted at their duty stations in cruise flight, while belts are only required to be provided to passengers.

            On that subject, I wonder if there’s a good parallel between face masks and seat belts? I’m sure you wouldn’t say that a passenger making a stink over wearing a seat belt when required was simply rationally rebelling against an unjust mandate, would you? Passenger seat belts are superfluous on the vast majority of takeoffs, landings and surface operations, and yet required. A flight crew would be fully justified in returning to the gate to deplane someone who refused to comply with instructions to wear a seatbelt, and yet the public seems to have been able to digest that requirement peacefully for the most part.

            It all causes me to wonder why.

            Have a great day!

    • I don’t have to guarantee anything. I don’t care about the results. A “Zero Tolerance Policy” is a sure sign of lack of leadership, responsibility, and competence.

      I’m happy to call for the termination of any official who enacts one as well as anyone who enforces one.

      It’s plain and simple tyranny, and it has no place anywhere in society. Not in a kindergarten nor in a plane.

      If anyone wants to know about masks, I made the right call on that in the beginning on this very site. Dr. Fauci recently spilled the beans on it. Stop arguing. Please.

  2. Why does the FAA have to sue? Shouldn’t this be a criminal indictment and a trial?

    If she was walking down the street and started attacking passersby, that’s what would happen. It’s potentially much, much worse on an aircraft, so why not indict her and put her on trial?

    • The FAA doesn’t actually sue. It has civil enforcement authority and brings cases in front of an NTSB judge or aviation law judge and imposes civil penalties (money) and/or certificate action if the person or entity holds an FAA certificate. But it holds no criminal enforcement authority on its own. Other law enforcement agencies such as police, FBI, or DOT IG are charged with bringing criminal proceedings against individuals involved with aviation violations, with the FAA’s assistance.

  3. Too bad… not enough $$$$. How about the cabin crew? When do they get their day in court? Heather needs to spend time, while incarcerated, about her abhorrent behaviour.

  4. Heather should be banned from ever flying on an airliner again. Nobody needs to absolutely travel by air, regardless of their situation. I haven’t flown on the airlines since 1999, by choice. I will fly GA airplanes – or anything that doesn’t require TSA involvement.

  5. This woman, Wells , should be doing prison time.

    The FAA can not ” arrest and criminally charge ” an individual as law enforcement officers can.

    The way that Congress grants power to such an agency, as the FAA is established, is through civil penalties.

    The Federal DOJ through the FBI retains law enforcement powers in matters of violations involving such criminal acts involving interference with a flight crew or cabin crew member, , or assault upon a flight or cabin crew member and can act accordingly.

    Local Police, Sheriff’s Officers, if called to meet an aircraft upon its landing with such a unruly combatant can escort that individual off the aircraft and of course charge them criminally under respective state statute or local ordinances if assaulted by that combative pax, and if that pax resisted arrest at which time those matters would be heard in a local or district court setting.

    • Correct. And if any case warrants both an FAA civil penalty and a criminal prosecution, I would say this one fits.

  6. Fines. The FAA can propose up to $37,000 per violation for unruly passenger cases. One incident can result in multiple fines.

  7. Sorry, I don’t want to reduce the seriousness of this incident but every single comment is ignoring the obvious fact that this individual *clearly* had some sort of significant medical emergency and that could happen to any of us. Her behaviour was way outside the normal bounds of human behaviour and just saying “Fine her!” really is not going to help. Even if she was just drunk, by its very nature, alcohol affects people differently and effectively she (or indeed anyone else who has a bad reaction to alcohol) is effectively temporarily deranged and therefore – kind of by definition – not responsible for their actions. I have never understood why this point has never been used in court. The question then becomes, should we permit the consumption of alcohol in circumstances where its affects could seriously endanger people – like on an aircraft? I for one seriously hope it does not come to that!

    Whether a pre-existing issue or one brought on by alcohol, drugs, medication, reduced air pressure, stress, (all of the above?), whatever, as our civilisation ‘progresses’ to a embrace the benefits of a more liberal society the associated downsides (the main one for my money being less emphasis on personal responsibility) are just going to have to be factored in to day-to-day life. In the context of an aircraft serving alcohol, for example, we are just going to have to accept that flight crews get trained to deal with this sort of thing (as I’m sure they already are), support their well-intentioned and professional actions to the hilt (both at the time and afterwards) and let the courts deal, fairly and in a considered way with the fallout.

    The main thing here, surely, is that no-one was seriously injured.

    • I might agree with some of what you say if it were not for my own personal experiences. With regard to FAA enforcement actions, I can say with certainty that in most cases that do make it in front of a judge, that the FAA is very forgiving and thorough in its investigations in terms of documenting mitigating factors. And then the aviation law judges are also very stringent in determining the appropriate penalty, if any, imposed. The monetary penalty asked for by the FAA legal counsel is rarely upheld and is frequently reduced to a fractional level. Because of this, I am very confident that the penalty being asked for by the FAA is fair and as I mentioned, will most likely be reduced.

      The second problem I have with your comment is that it appears that you feel that instead of holding people personally accountable for their actions, you feel that we in the industry should succumb to downfall of an increasingly uncivilized society and ‘train’ our way out of it. I would argue that that liberal philosophy contributes to the problem and is a factor in why we increasingly read about cases like this. Harsh in-flight behavior warrants an immediate harsh response to the degree that that behavior is extinguished, every time.

      • Excusing bad behaviour isn’t just a “liberal philosophy” as any number of GOP members of Congress demonstrate in their refusal to accept that January 6th was an insurrection and claiming it was just rowdy tourists — if it happened at all.

    • Good point. It certainly seems like some sort of psychotic episode. I wonder if she had a post-incident evaluation? Clearly many of these incidents are just jerks just acting out and they need to go to jail and be fined but I wonder about all the people with mental issues that fall through the cracks in our systems. Punishing them does not address the root cause of their behavior. The question of course is how you determine who’s just a jerk and whose brain just short circuited with no conscious control. It’s above my pay grade but I wonder.

    • Was waiting for this one. In Canada the government would have probably fined the airline.

      I am sympathetic to people with issues, but how do we balance that with the majority’s right to travel in comfort (sans outbursts) & safety? People with handicaps are demanding rows be removed to accommodate wheelchairs. As an airline pilot that is nonsensical. So what do we do for people with mental health issues – cages like prison transports? I’m exaggerating for effect.

      As for booze, well some do it intentionally. Flying as a pax I once witnessed a 20sumthin down a bottle of alcohol from wheels up to 10k feet when the belt sign went off. It didn’t end well for him.

      Do we need a solemn declaration on every leg that “I will behave myself”?!

    • Your comment that this person was “temporarily deranged and therefore not responsible for their actions” strikes me as odd. By that definition, who would be responsible for their actions?
      I would venture that everyone reading this, has at some point lost their temper, perhaps a few have even been enraged enough to damage property. This is an issue repeated around the world every day. Are they not responsible for their actions, because their rage was temporary?

      Even people who are drunk or under the influence of substances and who cause harm to other are still held responsible because they allowed themselves to get into that state.

      I would understand if you were stating that someone with an on-going mental disability might not be held responsible, but if that is not the case, then each person must be held responsible for their own actions.

      • Agree. And the FAA would have taken any medically associated condition presented to it by the violator that may contributed to the incident and documented that as a mitigating factor when determining proposed civil penalty.

    • Alcohol or drugs are primarily ingested voluntarily, by personal choice. This means that said persons are fully responsible for ALL acts committed whilst under the influence. The bottom line is, if you are doing drugs or alcohol, do it in moderation, or preferably not at all.

      • Good point. If this was intoxication, it has to be punished as a protection for society.

    • Regardless of what caused her behavior, it must be stopped. If this means banning her from flying ever again, so be it. I sure wouldn’t want to be on a plane with her.

    • Insanity defense is BS. The last refuge of a criminal. If she DID have a history of mental illness, she should stay the hell off of airliners.

  8. There are no doubt hardened criminals on flights, but by and large their interest is in keeping a low enough profile to avoid arrest.

    m@winlow.co.uk is right, this isn’t a criminal problem, it’s a medical problem. Travel by air pulls in the full spectrum of society. With more and more people flying, we are going to have more and more people with “issues” in line with the number of those folks we have in society. It’s also not an issue of economic background, she was in first class.

    There’s no easy answer to this. Should we ask airline personnel or the TSA to do mental health screenings? I doubt very much that they could, and I know that even trying would cause a revolt among the traveling public. Incidents like this are going to keep happening, and fines or no fines, criminal enforcement or not, we are going to have to live with it.

    • “Should we ask airline personnel or the TSA to do mental health screenings?” Absolutely not. The solution to this is actually quite simple. Make the consequences of such actions unpleasant enough to make people think, “I don’t want that to happen to me, I’d better behave myself.”

  9. Read her behavior again. This girl definitely has some serious mental issues. Can’t really punish away those.

  10. Let’s take this on face value. I’m sure the incident wasn’t examined without thorough medical and mental evaluations, and the “personal responsibiity” factors mentioned here were in consideration as well. If you know you react badly to alcohol, drugs etc. you know the risks before you but the ticket. I’d like to see comments based on fact, not some Dr. Internet or Imaginary Lawyer “experts” analysis.

  11. The Soviets used to hold that anyone who objected to their “workers’ paradise” had to be mentally incompetent. The policy served nicely as a justification to lock ’em up.

  12. I think the FAs deserve an extra week of paid leave and a one-time “combat bonus” for service above and beyond what they signed up for.

    Given the airline system and equipment we have, there is no way to deal with such psychotic breaks or severe panic attacks in-flight. It’s as unpredictable as the kid who ate his way down the concourse and pukes as soon as the seatbelt sign goes off, but far more dangerous.

    Short of giving FAs authorization to administer benzodiazepines during an in-flight emergency, duct-tape and a tight-fitting sleep mask are the only tools they have. But surely she’s now on the “No Fly List”, right?

  13. OMG! I thought this was a prank article at first! LOL!

    So this lady had to be duct taped, zip-tied, and tranq’ed? I reiterate, OMG.

    “Wells apologized for her behavior in a television interview, blaming it on a mental health episode in which she feared for her life.”

    Yeah right. Whatever she was on caused some major paranoia. Don’t know enough about drugs to speculate what that might have been.

  14. Used to be that Geyhound busses were the equivalent of a travelling Who’s Who of mental illness. Well, at least the pilots didn’t have to divert & throw everyone’s schedule off.

  15. Didn’t I read somewhere that interfering with a flight crew was a federal offense? Federal offense = Federal time. Second Item; as soon as she grabbed the door handle shouldn’t that be attempted murder (crew, pax)? How about locking her up and have a prison doc to a psych eval and she gets put on the forever No Fly List. The “I’m sorry” is a get outta jail smoke screen She was apparently aware enough of her behavior to apologize for it.

  16. What’s most curious to me is why she’s wearing glasses when totally bound–perhaps to enjoy the in-flight entertainment for the remainder of the flight? Maybe the FA’s were extracting some revenge by making her watch reruns of Friends…

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