A story called United with Ivy has been gone viral over the last 48 hours. It goes something like this–
- Large family (of 16) traveling from Dominican Republic to Newark together
- Husband and wife have four children
- Youngest child, daughter of 3, suffered a stroke in womb and is severely disabled, suffering from Spastic Quadriplegic Cerebral Palsy
- As a consequence, she is unable to physically sit up
- Husband and wife are seated in business class, kids in the back with relatives
- Though seat is purchased for their daughter in economy and she is past the age 2 cut-off for lap infants, they take her up to business class with her (2-2 config)
- Three FAs okay with it, but one disagrees, citing FAA regulations that lap infants must be two or under
- Parents protest – say she is physically unable to sit in her own seat
- FA begins arguing with her three colleagues, maintaining the child is too old to be a lap child
- FA continues to argue with parents that child is not allowed and summons ground staff to make a similar argument
- Ground staff allegedly cannot speak English and berate parents in Spanish
- Husbands pleads with Captain for a solution
- Captain offers compromise: child sits in own seat (in economy) during takeoff and landing and can join parents during flight
- Everyone agrees and flight departs one hour late due to this controversy
- Father moves back to economy class for takeoff and landing with child bucked in but lying on his lap
You can listen to the Kirschenbaum’s side of the story here:
Before I share my opinion on this story, let’s lay out one more fact: the FA was correct, there is no exception for disabled children above the age of two to be a lap passenger.
The FAA regulation is question is as follows:
§ 91.107 Use of safety belts, shoulder harnesses, and child restraint systems.
(a) Unless otherwise authorized by the Administrator—
(3) Except as provided in this paragraph, each person on board a U.S.-registered civil aircraft …must occupy an approved seat or berth with a safety belt and, if installed, shoulder harness, properly secured about him or her during movement on the surface, takeoff, and landing…
Notwithstanding the preceding requirements of this paragraph, a person may:
(i) Be held by an adult who is occupying an approved seat or berth, provided that the person being held has not reached his or her second birthday and does not occupy or use any restraining device…
There is also the issue of the parent’s sitting in business class. We have some more info on that as well–
In an initial statement, United appeared indifferent to Kirschenbaum’s predicament, further inflaming the situation. The statement, given to ABC News, noted that Ivy’s parents were “ticketed in first class” and wanted to hold Ivy in their lap, “rather than have the child take the seat they’d purchased for her in economy.”
Kirschenbaum said those comments were unnecessary and were made only to throw her family “under the bus.” She added that the tickets were purchased with frequent-flyer miles; when the seats were assigned at the airport, she said, she and her husband, Jeff, were assigned seats in business class, but their four children (ages 11, 8, 6 and 3) were assigned seats in economy. Kirschenbaum said she switched seats with other family members traveling with their group so that she could sit with her young children.
“Shame on [the spokesperson] for being so untruthful; for deflecting any sort of accountability by United; for painting my family in such a negative light,” Kirschenbaum told The Post. “All of the horrible, horrible firestorm on social media based on this one inaccurate comment is appalling and wasn’t necessary and is untrue and has me now defending myself as a parent.”
But is the statement true?
Elit Kirschenbaum told CBS news (in the video above) the following-–
“The flight attendants were passing back and forth, they passed drinks, smiled, said hello to Ivy and my son,” Elit said. “Everything seemed fine until a fourth agent approached us and told me to place Ivy in her own seat.”
Wait a minute!
If she had given up her business class seat to sit with her children, as she claims above, she would not have been offered a pre-departure beverage — that is only an amenity for business class passengers.
Further, if they received business class boarding passes and used miles for their ticket, it means they deliberately booked themselves in business class — there is no other possible explanation and it certainly was not the case that of all the people in their party they were randomly assigned business class seat.
Thus, her credibly immediately diminishes in my eye.
One part of me thinks of the “never letting the rules overrule common sense” Delta TV ad, and yet another part of me concludes that the FA should be commended for not falling prey to groupthink; for protecting the interests of her company first by not allowing an unquestionable breaking of a FAA mandate.
Truly, the two year old cutoff is arbitrary. 3-year-old Ivy weighed only 25 pounds and would have been little trouble in the lap of her parents, especially in business class. I suspect the two-year old rule is a proxy for weight and weighing each child would be too logistically difficult before each flight. But though arbitrary, there is no exception for weight — the rule says two and had there been an accident during takeoff or landing in which little Ivy was furthered injured, United would be liable and the parents would (rightfully) have a relatively slam-dunk lawsuit against United.
My conclusion, based on the interview and the coverage, is that the parent’s bought business class tickets for themselves specifically so that it would be more comfortable to hold Ivy. But the fact that they bought Ivy her own ticket suggests to me they knew that she was too old to be a lap infant — otherwise, why would they buy her a seat of her own? Assuming they input her birth date correctly when buying the ticket, they knew she had to have a ticket of her own — don’t you think it would make sense to notify United they were traveling with a severely disabled passenger and find out exactly what was necessary to safely transport their daughter beforehand?
And yet all that misses the point.
I’ll take the parent’s at their word in saying they traveled without issue before. I’ll give the FA the benefit of the doubt that she was looking out for the best of interest of her company.
But the issue was handled wrong, dramatically wrong.
Treating every human being with dignity and respect should be a goal for each of us and certainly be a necessity in the service-industry. There is no question that the Kirschenbaum family was humiliated and there is no question that the FA made a big scene when she could have discreetly and gently approached the family to enforce the FAA directive.
Thankfully the level-headed captain offered an appropriate compromise that the four FAs should have come up with themselves instead of arguing with each other over a solution. I am also thankful no one was removed from the flight.
The FA was right not to back down, but she failed as a human. She failed to understand the difficulty of traveling with a young child suffering from Spastic Quadriplegic Cerebral Palsy and she failed to show love to her neighbor. Soothing words go a long way…a lot further than coarse rebuke.
And that happens — we are only human after all, and fail often to be empathetic with others.
United was right to apologize and yet social media has turned decidedly against the Kirschenbaums. But I hope this is not an issue of which side will “win” the PR battle but one that will cause all of us to be better organized, better prepared, more empathetic of others with needs, and yet still cognizant that rules cannot be bent in every situation, and this situation was one of them.
The Kirschenbaums state they do not want any compensation from United, only an apology. They now have it and I hope that future travel (they state they will travel to Mexico next month on United) is much smoother.