According to people sitting near the woman, she had been drinking and refused to comply with cabin crew requests to wear a facemask during the flight.
Passenger Steve Freeman, who was sitting nearby, told WPLG: “There was a lot of drinking involved and I was nervous. She sat behind us in first class, she was a first-class passenger and was extremely abusive to the stewards.”
He added that the woman had been offered masks by cabin crew, but refused to comply with the rules and was rude to stay – something Mr Freeman said contrubited to the plane being turned around.
“We almost felt something was going to happen. I could see the writing on the wall, they gave her a lot of warnings, so we were kind of ready for it. It wasn’t just about the mask. It was the abusive behaviour,” he said.
Police officers waited for the flight to arrive back at Miami International Airport after the Boeing 777 had flown its 129 passengers and 14 crew members for about 500 miles out of its 4,400-mile trip when it turned around off the North Carolina coast, according to flight trackers. The plane landed an hour and 48 minutes after taking off.
“American Airlines flight 38 with service from Miami (MIA) to London (LHR) returned to MIA due to a disruptive customer refusing to comply with the federal mask requirement,” the airline said in a statement.
The company added that the plane “landed safely” at the Miami airport “where local law enforcement met the aircraft”.
“We thank our crew for their professionalism and apologize to our customers for the inconvenience,” they said.
Authorities said the person refusing to comply with the mask mandate was a woman in her 40s who was escorted off the plane by law enforcement. The airline put the woman on its “internal refuse list” while an investigation is conducted.
“They had a disturbance on the plane with the female passenger refusing to wear her mask, which was enough for them to bring back the plane and call us,” Argemis Colome of the Miami-Dade Police Department told Insider.
“Once we arrived, we basically just kind of kept the peace,” he added.
The officer said the woman was not charged or arrested.
“She was escorted off the plane, but there was no further incident after that,” Mr Colome said. “Her outcome was pretty much dealt with by the American Airlines staff. They dealt with that administratively and that was it.”
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has recorded 151 instances of “unruly passengers” so far this year as of 18 January – 92 of which have been “related to facemasks”.
According to the agency, 32 investigations have been started this year, which have resulted in four enforcement actions being initiated so far.
In 2021, the FAA recorded 5,981 reports of unruly passengers, with 4,290 of them being related to facemasks.
The agency said in January of last year that they were putting in place a “zero tolerance” policy, which skips warnings or counselling and moves immediately on to penalizing rule-breakers, which could lead to large fines and possibly jail time.
Between 1995 and 2020, there were an average of 182 investigations started each year, but in 2021, that figure skyrocketed to 1,081 investigations initiated by the FAA.