Woman sues American Airlines over in-flight incident with ‘uncontrollably drunk’ seatmate

Heading home after a guided food-tour excursion in Mexico with her girlfriends, Gretchen Stelter settled into her window seat in business class on American Airlines and began editing a book manuscript for her new job.

The 42-year-old editor, worried about a fast-approaching deadline, said she hoped her open laptop and the AirPods in her ears would discourage the chatty passenger next to her. When her plan failed, Stelter said, she “gave up” on work and made small talk with the man during their two-hour flight from Dallas-Fort Worth to Chicago.

But according to Stelter’s pending lawsuit, American Airlines employees failed to protect her from what happened next: Her seatmate, who ordered two double vodka sodas, became “uncontrollably drunk and loudly sexually harassed” her. He also grabbed her buttocks as she moved to exchange seats with a sympathetic passenger, the complaint alleges.

Stelter’s lawsuit, filed in Cook County in late May, also alleges American Airlines employees “victim-shamed and blamed” her in the hours and days following her Oct. 29 ordeal.

A spokesperson for the Fort Worth-based carrier declined to comment Friday, citing the pending litigation.

The suit is the latest in a series of recent public relations headaches for the airline.

Federal authorities said a former American Airlines flight attendant attempted to record a 14-year-old girl last September while she used a lavatory and that he was in possession of recordings of four other minors. Some of the girls’ families have sued the airline. The man pleaded not guilty last month to attempted sexual exploitation of children and possession of child pornography.

Also last month, three Black men sued the carrier alleging discriminatory behavior after they and other Black passengers were temporarily removed from a January flight over a complaint of “offensive body odor.” In a June 18 letter to his employees, American Airlines CEO Robert Isom called the incident “unacceptable” and pledged several actions to improve diversity and inclusion. Isom said he also has spoken with NAACP leaders, who had threatened to issue a travel advisory against the carrier.

In a Tribune interview, Stelter said she had a long day of travel on Oct. 29 after enjoying a nine-day vacation in Mexico with several girlfriends. Traveling alone, she began her journey at 6 a.m. in Oaxaca; her itinerary included stops in Mexico City and Dallas-Fort Worth, where she boarded American flight 1551 to O’Hare.

She planned to drive from Chicago to the home she shares with her husband in Madison, Wisconsin.

Stelter said she “splurged” on a business-class seat so she’d have more space to tackle the manuscript from a romantic fantasy series she was editing for her new job at a Naperville-based publishing house. She said the man directly next to her in 3B – the aisle seat – ordered a double vodka soda and struck up a conversation.

“It was pretty clear right away that he wanted to chat,” she said. “He just kept talking.”

Stelter said the conversation began innocuously enough with chitchat about their lives, their trips and even the writings of Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Her seatmate was speaking coherently at first, Stelter said.

About one hour into the flight, the man ordered a refill of his drink, according to the suit. Stelter, who had finished her soft drink, decided to order an alcoholic drink as well, she said.

“He was not slurring, and he did not start off being inappropriate,” she said. “It definitely escalated the more he was served alcohol.”

Stelter said she grew increasingly uncomfortable as he complimented her appearance, complained about his girlfriend and said he wished the woman was more like her. Stelter, who was wearing her wedding ring, said she politely rebuffed him, telling the man she was “happily married.”

He called himself “stupid” and told himself to “shut up,” the lawsuit said, but still persisted.

The complaint alleges two flight attendants were nearby when the man “made vile, offensive, and harassing comments” to Stelter, saying he was going to perform a sex act on her, using crude language, and that he would “wear her down” and “f−−−” her.)

Stelter said she consistently told him “no” and asked him to stop talking and to stop drinking.

“Honestly, I was trapped,” she told the Tribune. “I was in 3A. He was in 3B. My only way to get out of that seat was either to have some sort of help or to clamber over him, giving him full access to parts of my body that I did not feel like giving him access to.”

Other passengers took notice, including a man seated directly in front of Stelter in 2A who summoned a flight attendant after he inquired if Stelter was OK and she told him she wasn’t, according to the lawsuit. Her seatmate told the employee he was just “having fun,” and Stelter said the flight attendant took “no action to protect” her.

“He walked away, allowing the assailant to keep the alcohol (that) was left in his glass as well as the bottle of vodka then remaining in plain sight on his tray table,” the complaint said.

Stelter said the man’s harassing behavior continued throughout the flight. He told her they “were going to party,” repeatedly touched her hair, and tried to hold her hand and kiss her, according to the lawsuit, and began spitting on the floor.

Stelter’s complaint alleges two flight attendants in the business-class section of the plane witnessed much of the man’s behavior and failed to help her despite her complaints that he was harassing and touching her and that he was going to be sick. The lawsuit acknowledges they did warn the man to stop touching other passengers; Stelter also mentioned in an interview that they gave him water and offered assistance to the bathroom.

Feeling trapped, Stelter said she tried to de-escalate the situation by responding to the man calmly but firmly, drawing on her training from working part time with a rape crisis center.

“I think I was in a little bit of shock that no one was helping me,” she said. “I wanted to curl into a ball and be as tiny as possible because I didn’t want to be touched anymore.”

Shortly before landing, the male passenger in 2A offered to trade seats. The lawsuit alleges Stelter’s “assailant” grabbed her buttocks as she stepped over him to leave the row, while the two flight attendants stood nearby. She said he continued to verbally harass her through the gap between the seats.

Upon landing at O’Hare, the lawsuit said, passengers were asked to remain seated as police removed the man from the plane after they determined he was “too drunk to move safely.” Stelter said emergency medical personnel later removed him from the airport on a stretcher.

The lawsuit alleges airline gate agents “chastised and blamed” Stelter during a conversation immediately after the flight and suggested she hadn’t done enough to stop his behavior. She filed a complaint on American’s website the next day. Four days after her flight, she received a “form email in response,” the lawsuit said. At her request, a customer relations employee called her.

“After explaining that she had alerted the American flight attendants to the assailant’s behavior and they had not taken any action in response, the American customer relations employee yelled at and blamed (Stelter) for the incident, leaving (her) in tears,” the lawsuit alleges.

A few days later, Stelter said, a member of the airline’s executive team called and acknowledged the previous employee had not handled the situation properly and promised someone with their global investigations team would be in touch. She said that never happened.

Stelter said she has been in touch with the FBI and signed a complaint against the inebriated passenger. Her attorneys, Deanna Pihos and Benjamin Blustein, said they are unaware if he is facing criminal charges or a civil penalty. He is not named in the lawsuit.

The Federal Aviation Administration reported a sharp spike in passenger unruliness in 2021, leading to a zero-tolerance policy that replaced warning letters with monetary fines. There were 5,973 unruly passenger incidents that year, according to the FAA. The number of incidents dropped to 2,455 in 2022, 2,075 in 2023, and 915 cases in 2024 as of June 9, with 106 of those incidents connected to drinking.

Last month, the FAA filed a federal lawsuit to collect a nearly $82,000 fine from a San Antonio woman who tried opening an American Airlines cabin door mid-flight in July 2021 and was eventually restrained with duct tape.

In January, a passenger on an American Airlines flight out of Dallas-Fort Worth was accused of assaulting a flight attendant and later kicking a police officer. And in March, an intoxicated passenger on an American Airlines flight to Tampa was removed when he was accused of threatening to “take this plane down.”

Once an avid traveler who said she has lived in Australia, became engaged in Paris and visited such far-flung destinations as London, Fiji, Ireland, New Zealand and Italy, Stelter said the ordeal has left her mostly grounded by anxiety, panic attacks and other emotional distress.

She accepted a voluntary demotion at her full-time job and has been unable to fill her shifts as a part-time on-call advocate for rape survivors, according to her lawsuit.

“That’s one of the hardest things about trauma,” she told the Tribune, “when it takes away from you something you love.”

Stelter said she is suing for damages, lost earnings and to send a message to American Airlines to improve its employee training to better handle in-flight incidents and passenger complaints.

“I was retraumatized at every step instead of being listened to and supported,” she said. “It was just a complete failure at every turn to do anything to protect me or to validate me. Had someone at some point said, ‘I’m so sorry that this happened to you,’ and then they had handled it in that way from then on, it would be a very different situation.”