Rebecca Williamson says she made American Airlines fully aware her 14-year-old daughter has autism and is prone to seizures and behaviors such as rocking. She says she was assured her daughter could be accommodated and told not to worry.
Yet her worst fears materialized on Sunday, when she was told her daughter must get off an American Airlines flight bound for Puerto Rico for allegedly kicking a flight attendant.
Williamson, of Lower Allen Township in Cumberland County, says the incident amounts to discrimination against people with disabilities, and is another example of incidents that make parents of children with disabilities afraid to take them on flights.
“American Airlines needs to be made an example of. This not OK,” she said on Monday.
American Airlines spokeswoman Victoria Lupica confirmed the basic details described by Williamson, and that the family wasn’t afforded the opportunity to board the flight early as the law requires for people with disabilities. However, she says the airline believes that no discrimination occurred, and the flight captain took a justified action to protect the safety of the Williamson family and other passengers and crew. “This incident is unfortunate and I certainly apologize,” Lupica said on Monday.
The incident took place Sunday night in Philadelphia, where Williamson’s family planned to take an 8:20 p.m. flight to Puerto Rico for a family trip to celebrate two birthdays and a graduation. In addition to her disabled daughter, India, their party included seven others, including a 4-year-old son and a 77-year-old grandparent, Williamson said.
According to Williamson, she booked the flight about two weeks ago and at that time reached out to the airline’s department that handles requests for special accommodations, detailing her daughter’s disability. She said she called again on Saturday, the day before the flight, to make sure the flight crew had been informed and everything was set.
Williamson says her family expected to be able to board the flight early. But a malfunctioning airport elevator prevented them from reaching the special entry point. A member of the airport security staff was very helpful, she says, but the family was taken to the regular gate, arriving near the last call for boarding the plane and after other passengers had boarded. She said her daughter has difficulty with rushed situations. “She was a bit agitated. She doesn’t understand ‘we have to be on, right now’,” her mother says. Williamson says she handed her cell phone to her daughter, allowing her to listen to music, which calmed her.
Williamson says she took her daughter out of her special stroller and she and an adult cousin were on either side of her as they boarded the plane. During boarding, India “extended her leg,” causing a flight attendant to step aside, she says. She insists her daughter didn’t aggressively or violently strike the attendant.
Lupica, the airline spokeswoman, says “there was definitely contact between the child’s foot and the flight attendant’s leg.” However, she said the airline agrees it was not a deliberate act to hurt the attendant, who wasn’t injured, and it was not “portrayed as an attack of any kind.”
The rest of the family was already seated when she and India reached their seats, according to Williamson. She says she buckled India into her seat and India was smiling. They had been seated nearly five minutes when a manager came and said the pilot had ordered India off the flight. Williamson says she unsuccessfully “pleaded” with the manager, stressing her daughter’s disability and stating “do you really want this in the media?”
Although it was only India that was ordered off the flight, Williamson said she had all their travel-related information, and also was unwilling to allow her four-year-old to proceed without her. So the whole family got off.
Lupica said it’s her understanding the pilot made the final decision that India should get off the plane. She says it was determined that because of the rushed circumstances and the incident, and knowing the family could be put on the next flight, that it would be best for them to take the later flight. That way, they could pre-board under calm circumstances, and the airline could seat the whole family together, she said. The airline also gave the family a $200 travel voucher and food vouchers.
Back in the terminal, American Airlines staff was extremely helpful, and quickly booked the family onto the 10 p.m. flight for the same destination, according to Williamson. For the second flight, the crew seemed to be fully prepared and the boarding and flight took place without incident, Williamson says.
Lupica says the airline sees no need to discipline any employees, although she added “I know there will be conversation with the crew.” She also stressed that the airline works with professionals to understand and serve the needs of people with disabilities, and says the later flight to Puerto Rico exemplifies the way employees have been trained.
However, Williamson says she was “humiliated” on the plane, and the incident has preoccupied her and ruined the trip, which was meant to celebrate the birthdays of India and her older sister, as well as the high school graduation of the older girl. She says an apology isn’t sufficient. She also takes issue with Lupica’s contention that the decision to remove India from the flight was based in part on being able to seat the family together on a later flight. The family was already seated together on the first flight, she says.
[Their employees] need to be trained properly. If I have to get their attention through a lawsuit I will. This is not OK,” she says.