The trending story of a family thrown off a United Airlines flight from Houston to Portland beckons us to consider how airlines should compassionately and effectively accommodate disabled travelers while balancing concerns of safety and the comfort of other passengers.
The story has permeated throughout all modes of media over the last several days, but for those living under a rock, here is a brief summary:
- Beegle family of four flying from Orlando to Portland, Oregon via Houston in economy class on United
- Daughter, Juliette, 15 years old, suffers from autism and has trouble flying
- Juliette refused to eat during Houston layover and became hungry onboard IAH-PDX flight
- Donna, mother, purchased a hot chicken sandwich from the buy-on-board menu but Juliette refused to eat that, claiming it was lukewarm
- Donna asked FA if she could purchase food from first class, explaining that her daughter needed a hot meal but FA refuses
- Juliette becomes disruptive, loudly crying and screaming from her seat
- Donna implores the FA to bring her a first class meal, saying she has Plat status with United
- Juliette continues to be disruptive
- Donna finally warns FA that if Juliette does not get food she will have a “meltdown” and may “scratch” someone
- FA, either providing a crew meal or an uneaten first class meal, brings a hot meal back to Juliette and she clams down
- Minutes later, captain announces a diversion to Salt Lake City “due to a passenger in the back having issues.”
- Beegle family unaware at this point captain is referring to them
- In SLC, police escort Beegle family off plane; they are rebooked on Delta to PDX at United’s expense
Here is a YouTube video of the incident:
Although my gut reaction was to side with United immediately, let’s tease out the controversy a bit more. I try to be an empathetic person and do want to give the Beegles as much benefit of the doubt as possible. You can read Donna’s account here.
I take Beegle at her word when she said she tried to feed Juliette in Houston and I cannot blame a mother for trying to protect her daughter from meltdown. Thus, though asking for a first class meal seems tawdry, I will not hold that against her. Still a bit strange that she did not first ask to reheat the purchased chicken sandwich.
Her words describing the captain struck a chord with me—
The officer told us “The captain is not comfortable flying to Portland with your daughter on the plane. You have to leave the plane.” The captain had never seen Juliette nor had he come out of the front cabin.
When I was thrown off a United flight over a misunderstanding over onboard photography, my ejection was also described almost verbatim, as an issue of the Captain’s comfort—
A few minutes later a Global Services rep came onboard and asked to have a word with me, motioning for me to follow him. As I walked up front, I noticed the FA who had reprimanded me earlier ducked into the front galley and out of sight.
He was direct—”The captain is not comfortable with you on this flight. You’ll need to gather your things and we’ll find another way to get you to Istanbul.” I was flabbergasted.
That makes me immediately sympathetic to Beegles, for I still hold the captain of my ill-fated IST flight in contempt for delegating in-flight safety to a lying FA. Here too, it appears the Captain never actually spoke to the family or met Juliette.
But that is where the similarities end in our two stories. Beegle crossed a line when she threatened the safety of the flight and those passengers around her if she did not get her way.
True, the hot food did seem to diffuse the situation, as all reports indicate Juliette was sitting quietly watching the movie as the plane descended into SLC and even as police entered the aircraft to escort her off, but imagine the following—say the FAs had ignored the threat and gone back to galley to gab. Suddenly, Juliette attacks another passenger, scratching him and drawing blood.
Suddenly, instead of a theoretical lawsuit from the Beegles that may well be dismissed, United is looking at a serious lawsuit from a passenger claiming United ignored a direct threat from a passenger. FAs are condemned for being derelict in their duty and United receives and even harsher press criticism than it is experiencing in the aftermath of this incident.
This was a situation in which there was no ideal solution – just two bad alternatives and I support the United flight crew in this case for ultimately deciding that Juliette was a ticking time bomb and that a diversion better protected all those in the zone of danger from peril.
Had it been me, I think I would have offered two options – duct tape Juliette to her seat or divert. Good one Matthew! Can you imagine the press – “United Airlines Duct Tapes Autistic Teenage Girl to Her Seat”?
Bottom line, this was a no-win situation and the flight crew made the right call. Threats of this nature are simply unacceptable.
The Beegle family is suing and Donna claims that the object is not a handsome out-of-court settlement but for United flight crews to be properly trained on how to handle autistic passengers. These children are precious and for the most part we cannot blame them for acting the way they do. That is indeed what makes this situation so difficult.
We need to hear from experts as to whether food does avert meltdowns or just delays them – or perhaps there is no correlation at all. In any case, UA flight crews should be trained on how to handle special-needs passengers with dignity and compassion (I think a lot of them already do a great job of that) but that is a separate matter from how UA crews should respond to threats.
As easy as it is to condemn United here, I think the oft-maligned carrier made the right call in this difficult situation.