Unruly Passenger Who Was Restrained With Duct Tape Faces Record Fine

An American Airlines passenger who kicked and spat at flight attendants and passengers and attempted to open the cabin door before she was secured to a seat with duct tape has been sued by the Federal Aviation Administration for $81,950, the largest-ever fine assessed by the agency for unruly behavior.

The passenger, Heather Wells, 34, of San Antonio, was traveling first class from the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport in Texas to the Charlotte Douglas International Airport in Charlotte, N.C., on July 7, 2021. About an hour into the flight she ordered a whiskey and became agitated and said she “wanted out” of the plane, according to a lawsuit filed on June 3 in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas.

Ms. Wells began running toward the back of the plane, where she dropped to her knees in the aisle and began “talking incoherently to passengers, before crawling back toward the main cabin,” the lawsuit said.

When a flight attendant responded, Ms. Wells “became verbally aggressive and told the flight attendant that she would ‘hurt him’ if he didn’t get out of her way,” according to the court document.

She then pushed him and moved to the front of the plane where she “lunged toward and attempted to grab” the cabin door, “all the while screaming and yelling profanities.”

That was when two flight attendants and a passenger tried to physically restrain Ms. Wells, who struck one of the flight attendants in the head multiple times, the lawsuit said.

They were able to restrain her with duct tape and flex cuffs and place her on a seat. But she continued to “kick and spit and attempted to bite and head butt,” which “necessitated” Ms. Wells to be further restrained with tape, including on her mouth, according to the suit.

The captain determined that landing in Charlotte would be the quickest resolution, and law enforcement officers were waiting for the plane’s arrival, according to the lawsuit.

Ms. Wells continued to act violently once officers boarded, breaking the seat in front of her, before she was sedated and removed from the plane.

Ms. Wells told KENS 5 in San Antonio that she was having mental health issues and apologized in a statement.

“I know that it was not rational and I was not actually in any external dangers but at the time I was genuinely afraid for my life,” the statement read. “Words can’t express how sorry I am for the fear I caused and the people I hurt.”

Ms. Wells, who could not be reached for comment, told the news station that after she was taken off the plane she was kept in a hospital for observation and that she does not have a lawyer.

No lawyer was listed on the court documents and American Airlines did not return a request for comment on Saturday. It was unclear if Ms. Wells was ever formally charged.

According to the lawsuit, Ms. Wells is liable for a civil penalty of $45,000 for her violent behavior toward the crew and passengers; $27,950 for attempting to open the cabin door; and $9,000 for interfering with the performance of crew members’ duties, totaling $81,950.

The fines were proposed by the F.A.A. in 2022, at which point Ms. Wells had 30 days to respond.

They came on the heels of a sweeping zero-tolerance policy meant to target soaring reports of aggressive behavior by passengers.

According to F.A.A. data, those incidents have dropped substantially: In 2021, there were nearly 6,000 reports of unruly passengers, dropping to 2,455 in 2022, and 2,075 in 2023. So far this year, 885 cases have been reported.

But in a statement this week, the agency warned against bad behavior as summer travel begins.