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HomeNewsNational NewsWoman sues American Airlines over ‘uncontrollably drunk’ seatmate

Woman sues American Airlines over ‘uncontrollably drunk’ seatmate

After concluding a guided food-tour in Mexico with her friends, Gretchen Stelter settled into her business class window seat on an American Airlines flight, intending to focus on editing a book manuscript for her new job. Despite hoping her open laptop and AirPods would dissuade conversation, she engaged in small talk with her seatmate after her work plan failed during their two-hour flight from Dallas-Fort Worth to Chicago.

However, according to Stelter’s pending lawsuit, the airline’s employees failed to intervene when her seatmate, who had consumed two double vodka sodas, became “uncontrollably drunk and sexually harassed” her. The complaint alleges he also groped her buttocks as she attempted to change seats with another passenger who sympathized with her.

Filed in late May in Cook County, the lawsuit further accuses American Airlines employees of “victim-shaming and blaming” Stelter in the aftermath of the October 29 incident.

American Airlines declined to comment on the pending litigation.

This lawsuit adds to recent challenges for the airline, including allegations of a former flight attendant attempting to record a minor in a lavatory and discriminatory actions against Black passengers.

In an interview with the Tribune, Stelter described a tiring travel day following a vacation in Mexico, where she embarked alone after departing from Oaxaca early in the morning, with stops in Mexico City and Dallas-Fort Worth before boarding flight 1551 to Chicago’s O’Hare airport. Her plan was to drive home to Madison, Wisconsin, where she resides with her husband.

Choosing a business-class seat, Stelter aimed to have space to work on editing a romantic fantasy series for her new job at a Naperville publishing house. Her seatmate, in 3B, struck up conversation shortly after boarding, initially discussing various topics, including their trips and the writings of Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

“He seemed coherent at first,” Stelter said. However, as the flight progressed and the man ordered more drinks, she became increasingly uncomfortable as he complimented her appearance, criticized his girlfriend, and made inappropriate advances despite her clear indications that she was happily married.

The lawsuit alleges that despite Stelter’s objections and requests for him to stop, flight attendants failed to intervene effectively. Other passengers noticed her discomfort, with one in 2A summoning an attendant after she indicated she was not okay. The lawsuit claims the flight attendant took no meaningful action to protect her, merely chalking up the man’s behavior to “having fun.”

Stelter described feeling trapped and shocked by the lack of assistance, resorting to calming tactics learned from her work with a rape crisis center. Despite attempts to de-escalate, the man continued his behavior, including verbal harassment and attempts to touch her. He even made threats and spat on the floor.

The situation only shifted shortly before landing when a passenger in 2A offered to switch seats with her. As Stelter moved past her harasser, he allegedly grabbed her buttocks, and although flight attendants were nearby, no action was taken.

Upon landing at O’Hare, police removed the intoxicated man from the plane, deemed unfit to move safely, and later transported him from the airport on a stretcher. Stelter alleges that gate agents further blamed and chastised her, exacerbating her distress.

In the days following the incident, Stelter received little support from American Airlines, including an unsatisfactory response to her complaint filed online. She noted that even when speaking with airline executives, their handling of the situation left much to be desired.

Struggling with anxiety and emotional distress since the ordeal, Stelter has had to reduce her workload and alter her career plans, even as she seeks damages and changes in airline policies to prevent similar incidents in the future.

“I wanted someone to say, ‘I’m so sorry that this happened to you,’” she said. “Instead, I felt invalidated and unprotected every step of the way.”

The lawsuit reflects broader concerns about airline safety and passenger treatment amid incidents of unruly behavior and inadequate response, pointing to the need for improved training and support mechanisms for passengers facing harassment or assault in-flight.

By: Big Sky Headlines staff

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