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A recent United flight from Houston to Portland diverted to Salt Lake City and the pilot had a family removed from the plane. The mother claims the removal was due to discrimination against her daughter’s autism. United claims that the situation became disruptive and the pilot made the decision to divert. The mother is now saying she is planning to sue United for discrimination. That is the simplest way to describe this odd story but, for a number of reasons, I think it only touches the surface of what happened.

Before I jump into the multiple aspects to this incident I want to state a few things that I think are important.

  1. I am not a lawyer nor am I an airline employee. I simply fly a lot for work and leisure and I see a lot of things, some of them crazy, on planes.
  2. I have family members with mental disabilities as well as friends who are the parents of children with mental disabilities. It is not my intention to diminish the fact that raising a child with disabilities is difficult, stressful, and trying. Parents who work so hard to give their children “normal” lives and provide for their needs are definitely not my issue in this post.
  3. I believe there is more to this story than what is being presented by the news outlets. United, being threatened with litigation by the mother, is unquestionably going to be tight-lipped about the entire thing. The story has seemingly morphed since it was originally on television here in Portland as well, with more details coming to light and wording being changed.

With all of that said, where do we even start with all of this? Dr. Beegle, the mother of the autistic child stated that the family had dinner in Houston’s Intercontinental Airport but that her daughter did not partake. The mother, being thoughtful and caring, grabbed some snacks, knowing that her daughter may need them onboard.

The family ate dinner in Houston, Beegle said, but Juliette refused to eat. Beegle brought some snacks on board for her because “if her blood sugar lets go, she gets frustrated and antsy. We try to anticipate that and prevent that.”

When the family boarded, Dr. Beegle asked a Flight Attendant if they had any hot meals due to her daughter being a “picky eater” (her words not mine). The flight attendant let her know what they had a hot sandwich, but then, when everyone was served, the sandwich was room temperature.

The mother is clearly preempting her daughter’s needs, I appreciate that. The flight attendant is working with the information they have. Hot food is usually catered on United afternoon and evening flights, sometimes it is not due to catering screw-ups. What happened here is one of those pieces of information that we just don’t have. Did the flight attendant’s not heat up the meal? Were the hot sandwiches not catered?

Anyway, Dr. Beegle then asked to purchase a hot meal from first class. The flight attendant told her that was not possible.

“I asked if I can purchase something hot for my daughter and [the first class flight attendant] said no” she said. “I called him back over and I said to him, ‘Please, help us out here,'” but he again refused.

“He came back again and I said, ‘I have a child with special needs, I need to get her something.’ And he said, ‘I can’t do that,'” she explained. “I said, ‘How about we wait for her to have a meltdown, she’ll be crying and trying to scratch in frustration. I don’t want her to get to that point.'”

KOIN Screenshot of Mother's Quote

KOIN6 News version of mother’s quote

This is where I see some odd differences in the wording and also the point in the tale where things start to go downhill. First, the original story by KOIN6 news stated that the mother said she’ll “get to the meltdown point” and “maybe scratch someone”, yet the AP story has different wording. I would like to know what was actually said. And if “scratch someone” was used, why was that necessary to say? I would also want to know if this was the first time the mother mentioned the child having special needs. If it was, why did the mother not bring it up the first time when the sandwich arrived cold?

Yahoo! Screenshot of Mother's Quote

Yahoo! version of mother’s quote

After the mother made the above statement the flight attendant brought rice and jambalaya from first class. Again, we are lacking a little detail here. Was it an extra serving, did someone not want their meal, or was it a crew meal? That may not seem important but I have seen a comments stating that the flight attendant was cold hearted and should have just done something to help. If the flight attendant originally told the mother that he couldn’t bring something from first class, it may have been because he was still serving first class and didn’t know if there would be any meals available.

Soon after this occurred an announcement was made that the plane would be making an emergency landing because of a passenger with “a behavior issue”. What happened in between the two events I can only speculate about but for the pilot to make the decision he had to receive the details about the encounter with Dr. Beegle and then decide whether or not to continue with the flight. On domestic flights, when a pilot leaves the cockpit a flight attendant enters the cockpit so that the door can be opened when the pilot returns. This has been a policy since a little after 9/11. At the same time, a flight attendant in the front galley usually blocks the aisle with a food cart. I believe this is a policy on United only but you may see it at other airlines. With these measures, it is not possible for the pilot to walk back to the Beegles and assess the situation himself. He can only make a decision based on the information given to him by his flight attendants.

If the wording used by Dr. Beegle was actually “she may try to scratch someone” and that was passed along to the pilot, then the decision to divert was probably not a difficult one. A passenger who may threaten others can lead to a situation that escalates quickly and dealing with violence on an airplane is not easy. When you are on a plane, the pilot is the final say in safety matters. If he feels something is a danger, whether it be mechanical or human, he makes the decision on what to do with the plane. Diversions are not taken lightly either. It is not like a pilot wakes up one morning and thinks to herself, “you know, today I feel like going to Salt Lake City on the way to Portland, wonder if I can cause a diversion?”.

There are some side notes about the comments made after the plane landed. The medic’s comments I deem unimportant. When flights call in their diversions, there is very little information usually given other than maybe “we have an unruly passenger and would like to be met by emergency personnel”. For a medical professional to come onboard and then find that nothing was wrong medically then proceed to say it was an “overreaction” by the pilot, I think that’s unprofessional. When the pilot stated that he didn’t feel comfortable continuing with Dr. Beegle’s daughter onboard, Dr. Beegle stood up and asked the rest of the plane what they thought. That’s a red flag in my book as well.

In the end I think there is blame to share on both sides. The flight attendants could have done a better job asking what needs the child had when the mother first brought it up to them. The mother could have chosen her words more wisely and tried to explain what was going on more clearly. I don’t read the stories about this and see anything that stands out as discriminatory against autism though. It is not like the pilot came over before takeoff and said “we see your daughter has special needs and we can’t accommodate her, you will need to get off the plane” which would be direct violation of the Air Carrier Access Act.

I also do not see anything that says the pilot’s decision was based on anything physical the girl did, which leads me to believe that it was the mother’s statement about scratching that caused the diversion. The mother’s reason for using that statement bugs me. Someone told me on Twitter “It’s sad to me that people have to watch what they say so carefully now.” when I mentioned the wording being a potential problem. I agree and disagree. You are in a metal tube at 35,000 feet, things can go badly very quickly. Does this mean you need to be completely censored? No, it just means you do not use the potential of violence in your conversations, especially when you are wanting something from a flight attendant. Think about how that comes across, “she needs a hot meal or she may scratch someone”.

Again, there are, I’m sure, plenty of details that we are missing. Those details may fill in the gaps on things such as tone and composure of the mother and the flight attendant. Also, the family was put on another flight on Delta to get from Salt Lake City to Portland and from what I can find, that flight was the same day. In the grand scheme of things, it was an inconvenience for everyone, the Beegle family, the other passengers on the United flight, and the crew. I also believe there was a little bit of overreaction by Dr. Beegle and the flight attendant. Maybe if each had taken a minute to think about the situation and spoken a little less, the plane would have continued on to Portland with no diversion. But, as with most stories, there are two sides, and we are only hearing the one side that has been covered in the news and on social media. Just as with the flight attendant and the mother, maybe we all need to take a step back and understand that not everything about this has been made public and maybe we should reserve judgement for when more information is made available.

I do hope this raises more awareness of autism and the different forms it can take. Alaska Airlines has a program where they invite families with an autistic child experience a day at the airport and on an airplane as well teach their employees how to be sensitive to the needs of such passengers. AIR (Autism Inclusion Resources) also recently teamed up with United and Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport to host a dry run of a travel day for families with an autistic child. So awareness and training is growing.

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