Mom Says United Airlines 'Humiliated' Family Over Special Needs Child


Another day, another PR crisis for an airline. This time, it’s United, after a mom complained a flight attendant “humiliated” her family over the seating of their daughter, who has special needs.

ABC News relates Elit Kirschenbaum’s story. She and her family were returning to New Jersey from the Dominican Republic. Among the group was three-year-old Ivy, who has Spastic Quadriplegic Cerebral Palsy and always flies sitting on one of her parents’ laps. Technically every child over two is required to have their own seat, but she can’t sit upright on her own. So her parents (flying business class) purchased her an economy ticket to comply with the rules but planned to proceed as they usually do. Kirschenbaum says they’ve never had a problem before, and three flight attendants saw them without making an issue.

But then the fourth flight attendant noticed them. And that, Ms. Kirschenbaum wrote on Tumblr, is when things escalated into a big fat embarrassing mess:

This flight attendant returned to her co-workers and began to argue with them. She returned to argue with us. She kept quoting FAA regulations. She brought up members of the staff from the airport, including several baggage handlers who spoke very limited English, to lecture us about seating despite the fact that we were clearly Americans and spoke little to no Spanish. She insisted on creating a scene. The remaining 3 flight attendants pleaded our case, in fact one was in tears, but this one attendant dug her heels in and wouldn’t budge. The other 3 attendants scoured the Flight Attendants’ Handbook and found a clause that stated that if a passenger was unable to sit independently they were allowed to sit on a lap…. My husband pleaded with her, my other 3 children were sobbing, my niece was sobbing, other passengers were getting involved yet this woman still displayed zero compassion.

The plane was finally able to embark when the pilot suggested Ivy be laid across her dad’s lap and buckled in. “My family was humiliated in front of a full flight of passengers,” writes Ms. Kirschenbaum.

When contacted by ABC News, United Airlines reiterated FAA regulations:

“The parents, who were ticketed in first class, wanted to hold the child in their lap rather than have the child take the seat they’d purchased for her in economy. Federal safety regulations require any child over the age of two to have his or her own seat, and flight attendants are required by law to enforce that safety rule. As we did in this case, we will always try to work with customers on seating arrangements in the event of any special needs.”

But it sounds like they’ve since apologized for the way it was handled:

This story pretty perfectly captures how miserable flying has gotten. Even if the Kirschenbaums had purchased Ivy her own business-class ticket right next to her parents, that wouldn’t have solved the problem—she can’t sit on her own. But who would you even begin to approach for a definitive solution? The FAA? Some United customer service line? (Have you ever dialed one of those things up? It’s like being trapped in a heavy-handed short story about the alienating effects of technology.) CBS News says that the FAA recommends “an FAA-approved child safety seat” in this case, but Kirschenbaum says she had no idea. Perhaps the airlines could be more proactive in suggesting such solutions in the interests of, you know, serving their customers. Heaven forbid they PROVIDE them!

Instead, the current system leaves flight attendants acting as de facto sky lawyers, interpreting and enforcing rules on the spot. If they’d hit turbulence during takeoff and Ivy had been hurt, it presumably would’ve been the flight attendants’ asses. And let’s have some compassion for them, too—they’re paid very little to troubleshoot a million crises big and small. (Often while dealing with customers who are miserable and not exactly generous and upbeat in their interactions with personnel.) And it’s all because none of us—neither passengers nor employees—can depend on the airlines to make an institutional commitment to accommodating anyone, not even a three-year-old stroke survivor who, again, cannot sit upright on her own. Their default strategy often seems to be “fuck all y’all,” until they’re called out on social media, anyway.

At any rate, CBS reports that the family is planning a trip to Mexico in the near future, and this time they’ll bring a safety seat.

Image via Getty.

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