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Tour organizer says graduates from Boston-area high schools were wrongly blamed for delaying an American Airlines flight

A traveler wearing a protective mask walked past an American Airlines plane at Ronald Reagan National Airport in Arlington, Va.
A traveler wearing a protective mask walked past an American Airlines plane at Ronald Reagan National Airport in Arlington, Va.Bloomberg/Photographer: Bloomberg/Bloomber

A tour organizer said Wednesday that American Airlines wrongly punished 47 recent high school graduates from the Boston area heading to the Bahamas for the actions of one teenager who refused to wear a face mask and that the airline failed to treat the students properly after flight delays caused by the airline itself.

The trip was organized by Breakaway Beach, a private company that provides chaperoned weeklong vacations for graduating high school seniors, and the teenagers were on their way to the Bahamas Monday on Flight 893.

Two parents confirmed Wednesday that about 30 recent graduates from Winthrop High School, along with friends from other Greater Boston communities, were on the plane.

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American Airlines said Tuesday that passengers, whom they declined to identify by age, were “noncompliant with the federal mask mandate, became disruptive to other customers and refused to follow crew member instructions while onboard” and were ordered off the plane.

In a statement Wednesday, the airline acknowledged that there was a two-hour delay caused by a maintenance issue and said passengers had been required to exit one plane and go to another gate to board a second plane.

The group refused to comply with federal face mask requirements, left their assigned seats, played loud music, shouted foul language, and repeatedly ignored the requests of the flight crew, the statement said.

Their expulsion from the flight led to multiple additional delays, forcing the airline to remove their bags from the plane and bring in a new flight crew as personnel reached the end of their shifts, the airline said.

In the end, the flight left almost 24 hours behind schedule, with all members of the group allowed on board after they agreed to follow the regulations, according to American Airlines.

The airline provided meal vouchers to all passengers and hotel vouchers to all who were eligible, though some did not meet minimum age requirements, it said, and its customer relations staff reached out to apologize to all passengers and offer them 15,000 frequent flyer points.

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“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,” American Airlines spokesman Andrew Trull said in the statement. “We thank our team members for their professionalism and apologize to our customers for the inconvenience.”

According to Eugene Winer, president of Breakaway, the flight was delayed at the Charlotte Airport in North Carolina because of a mechanical problem, forcing passengers to spend about two hours on the aircraft without a functioning ventilation system.

“During this time some passengers including the students may have removed masks due to the no air-conditioning/ventilation, quite unbearable conditions,” he wrote in a statement provided to the Globe. “One passenger was officially escorted off of the aircraft but was not ticketed or charged with an offense.”

All passengers were taken off the aircraft while repairs continued and the students were notified they would not be allowed to reboard once the flight resumed because of the actions of their colleague, Winer wrote.

“The actions of this passenger resulted in the entire group of graduates being labelled ‘unruly’ and ‘disruptive,’ ” he wrote. “Breakaway was told [by American Airlines] that the actions of one individual were the responsibility of the entire group.”

In a telephone interview, Winer said the group was composed of recent high school graduates, but would not say if they were former Winthrop High School students, citing privacy concerns and the fact that the trip had no connection to the school.

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The airline initially refused to let the students continue the flight, which was further delayed because a pilot was not immediately available to replace one who had maxed out on the hours they could fly, he wrote.

After several hours, American relented and allowed the students to board the flight — but the flight was delayed until Tuesday morning because the airline did not have a pilot available until then, he said.

American provided housing and meal vouchers for other passengers, but did not assist the students, saying they were under 18 and could not be provided hotel rooms, according to Breakaway.

The company paid for hotel rooms for the students, 80 percent of whom were 18 years old, he wrote. The company also had to pay to transport the group between the hotel and the airport since “other passengers from the flight were hostile and aggressive with the group due to their perceived responsibility for postponing the flight.”

Winer said the airline should not have punished the entire group for the bad behavior of one student. He stressed that aviation safety rules should always be followed. But “the handling of this situation by American Airlines was incredibly disappointing,” he wrote. ”However, the act of one individual is not the responsibility of others, and the students that were abiding by the rules should not have had to endure this type of treatment.”

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He said the airline subjected the teenagers to “an improper and overly harsh manner, causing unnecessary stress and aggravation to the travelers and their parents from afar” and that the students were treated differently because of their age.

“Our hope is that the individual staff and the airline will learn from this situation so that it does not repeat, and compensate the group for a missed night of a much-deserved graduation, and apologize for the treatment the group received,” he wrote.

His account was echoed by one parent of a Winthrop High graduate on the trip, who spoke to the Globe on the condition her name wouldn’t be printed.

She said she was FaceTiming with her daughter when she heard another male passenger approach the daughter’s group and tell them, “You guys weren’t doing anything wrong. ... Don’t give them a reason” to keep the teens off the flight.

“This is a group of kids we’re talking about,” the Winthrop mother said. “They’re our children. Most of them are straight-A students.”

The mother conceded that neither she nor the other parents are claiming their children acted like “perfect angels” throughout the flight. But she called reports that the youths staged a politicized revolt against mask wearing “sensationalized” and “irresponsible.”

“American is using our kids as scapegoats,” the mother added. “For all I know, that second plane also had a mechanical issue. ... There’s something more to this, and our kids are just easy targets.”

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Travis Andersen of the Globe staff and correspondent Jeremy C. Fox contributed to this report.


John R. Ellement can be reached at john.ellement@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @JREbosglobe.