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Friday, September 7, 2012

American Airlines Attempts to Explain its Actions

American Airlines has provided a somewhat more detailed response as to why they barred a 16 year old boy with Down Syndrome and his family from flying. This explanation was posted on the Americans Airline Facebook page which was bombarded with expressions of outrage. 
Here is the statement in full:
We appreciate the outpouring of concern for the Vanderhorst family. However, prior to boarding flight 119 from Newark to Los Angeles, our customer service team observed the Vanderhorst teen yelling and running around the gate area – he seemed very agitated. Our team, along with the Captain of the flight, worked with the family for more than 30 minutes to try and calm the teen down. There were times when he was calm, but unfortunately, when it came time to board the flight he became agitated again. We tried to work with the family to come up with alternate solutions, which included an offer to rebook the family on the next flight in order to give the teen time to acclimate to his surroundings. Our customer service team, as well as flight crew, made the difficult decision that it wasn't best for the teen to travel at that time. We wanted to make sure that the young man, as well as the other passengers onboard, were safe and comfortable during the six-hour flight.Ultimately, the family chose to fly another airline, and we helped to re-accommodate the Vanderhorsts. American's actions and procedures are in full compliance with the Air Carrier Access Act. Asking the Vanderhorst family to take a different flight was a decision that was made with careful consideration and was based solely on the young man's behavior.
I remain convinced American Airlines is lying. The easiest way to settle this would be to release security tapes of Bede Vanderhorst "yelling and running around the gate area". Such behavior would have been grossly inappropriate. In fact if any person yelled and ran around a gate area at an airport in America the police would be called within seconds. Airports demand utter control of the masses that pass through them. This control is required and insured by a number of humiliation rituals foremost among them passing through security. Any behavior out of the norm is quickly and forcefully dealt with. All people, from a seasoned traveler to a person that flies once a decade, know you cannot behave inappropriately. People simply must conform. In my case that entails a long wait at security and being referred to TSA guards as "adult male wheelchair". 
I sincerely doubt the the captain of the flight "worked with the family for more than 30 minutes to try and calm the teen down". I have never seen a pilot "work" with a passenger for more than a minute or two in my entire life. Calming down passengers is not the responsibility of a pilot. Again, has any reader ever seen a passenger behave out of the norm--especially since 9/11? This does not happen and if it does airport security will rapidly respond. In New York I often hear the commercial "If you see something say something". Of course "something" is not defined but is understood to include all unusual behavior. So if a teen, especially one with Down Syndrome, was "yelling and running" as American Airlines maintains I am sure dozens of people in the boarding area would have called airport security. 
The statement that the "family chose to fly on another airline" and that American Airlines "helped re-accommodate" the family is grossly misleading. The reality behind this statement is as follows: the family was humiliated and deeply stigmatized. They could not board a plane even though they had first class tickets. They had to stay in a hotel, likely next to the airport, and spent a sleepless night worrying if they would be barred from a flight the next day. I assume they decided to fly coach as they had in the past without incident. God forbid a teen with Down Syndrome who has what Erving Goffman called a "spoiled identity" be near other first class passengers.
Obviously this story has hit a sore spot. I deeply resent the way people with a disability are treated at airports and by airlines. I have exceedingly low expectations when I fly. I assume I will receive the lowest level of customer service humanly possible. I assume I will be needlessly delayed. I assume I will be disrespected. I assume multiple FAA violations will occur when I board a plane. In the New York area, I assume the trained personnel responsible for assisting me on and off a plane will not speak English and have no clue what they are doing. I expect all this. I can defend myself and have learned how to adapt to a hostile environment. But what truly enrages me is when people with cognitive deficits are  treated as badly as I am. Who will defend them? Who will serve as a surrogate to protect them from gross injustice? Who will express outrage when they are barred from boarding a plane? I truly appreciate the support the family has received after the fact but wonder where this outrage was when they were refused boarding. 


Phil Dzialo said...

As House, MD would say "Everyone lies!" No one ever admits responsibility...I am sure the same is not confined to airlines, same often exists on buses and railways....

Elicia said...

My son has Ds and is only three months old. News items like this make my blood run cold. What scares me the most is that I rarely thought about disability rights before having him. I feel like someone has to have a relationship with a person who is disabled before they can is scary to think about. I was one of those people who literally knew very few people with disabilities (and only acqaintances) so I know that it isn't rare.

william Peace said...

Phil, I have no respect for the airline industry. Flying today is a miserable and pressure packed experience.
Elicia, I wish I could disagree with your comment. It does indeed seem to that to truly get disability rights one needs to have a connection with a person that has a disability. Also keep in my people my age, 52, were the first to live outside institutions and lead a so called normal life. And most importantly congrats on the birth of your baby!

H said...

I will go ahead and say I have had no end of negative experiences with American Airlines due to my disability. I have no doubt in my mind AA is lying. I almost got kicked off a flight for having Holden because of the incompetent CRO on duty. It was a truly embarrassing encounter wherein she decided that I should be grateful to be allowed to fly at all. She had limited and incorrect knowledge of the ACAA, was rude and held me in contempt as a disabled flier. After that encounter, I now bring a printed copy of the relevant parts of the ACAA to the airport with me. (Not that I've found it helpful in avoiding my rights being trampled on by airline personel.)

Reports like this, in addition to my own experiences, are the reason I do anything within my power to drive, if possible, instead of fly. I do hope the family brings forth action.

GirlWithTheCane said...

Blogged about this and about disability discrimination by airlines in general...talked about your experiences as examples and referred people to some specific posts and comments. Just FYI.

Best Regards,


william Peace said...

Holden, I have relevant sections of the Air Carrier Access Act (CAA) downloaded onto my phone. When an issue arises I whip the phone out and read relevant passages. This does not help one iota as I end up arguing regulations rather than actually boarding a plane. Like you I avoid flying when possible. I have the 500 mile rule--no flights of less than 500 miles. Just not worth the hassle.
Gilrwithacane, Thanks for letting my know you quoted me. I would suggest the airline industry is efficient at helping those with limited ambulation. People such as yourself who us a cane and the elderly for instance. However, when one uses a wheelchair the actions of the airline are quite different. Wheelchair users require assistance and that adds to labor costs. I am not suggesting discrimination is less for a person who is legally blind or has limited ambulation. The point is people that use a wheelchair are easy targets for airlines. I would suggest airlines do not care and simply consider FAA fines part of the cost of doing business.