Boy with Down syndrome barred from flying first class: Discrimination or safety precaution?

A boy with Down syndrome was barred from flying in first class on a cross-country flight and his parent say he was discriminated against because of his disability.  (There is video on the link. I am having problems with my embed codes. Hopefully fixed soon.)

From The Associated Press:

“Robert Vanderhorst, his wife Joan and 16-year-old son Bede, who is disabled, were booked to fly on an American Airlines flight from Newark to Los Angeles on Sunday when the boy and his parents were not allowed on the plane.

The family from Porterville had upgraded to first class tickets at an airport kiosk, and asked the airline to seat the boy and one of his parents together — a request the airline granted — Vanderhorst said Tuesday.

When the family was ready to board, they were stopped by airline personnel, told their son was a “security risk” and would not be allowed on the flight, he said. The parents protested, and later were rebooked to fly coach with another airline.

American Airlines spokesman Matt Miller said the disabled boy was agitated and running around the gate area prior to boarding, which his parents dispute. The airplane’s pilot observed the boy, Miller said, and made the call based on his behavior.

“He was not ready to fly, that was our perspective,” Miller said. “We rebooked the family out of concern for the young man’s safety and that of other passengers as well.”

But Vanderhorst said his son did not run at any time, did not make any loud noises and didn’t display any other offensive behaviors. The boy walked around with him or sat quietly in the gate area, Vanderhorst said.

A cell phone video captured by the boy’s mother shows Bede sitting and quietly playing with a baseball cap.

Vanderhorst said Bede, a freshman at Granite Hills High School in Porterville, about 70 miles from Fresno, is very charming in contact with other people. The family has flown more than two dozen times with him, without any difficulties.

“Usually my son gets his snack and falls asleep, just like most people,” Vanderhorst said. “The problem is this pilot thought my son might not be like most people. He didn’t want a disabled person disturbing other passengers in first class.”

The family says the pilot might have also been affected by the disabled boy’s size — Bede is 5′1 and weighs 160 lbs.

On the second airplane, the family was placed in the last row and no passengers were allowed to sit within two rows of them, Vanderhorst said.

He hoped that airlines would change their mentality when dealing with the disabled.

“It’s ridiculous and groundless to claim that this kid created a security risk,” he said. “It was the pilot’s insecurity. I paid for those seats and there was nothing that should have prevented us from taking that flight.”

American Airlines’ Miller said the company will reimburse the family for the upgrade fees.”

What do you think? Does the airline have a right to choose who sits in first class if they have paid? Was this a lack of understanding of a disability? Was this discrimination?

90 comments Add your comment

Bernie

September 7th, 2012
1:16 am

I saw this story and was upset upon reading it. Surely a better outcome could have been achieved if cooler heads prevailed. The issue was the disturbance of those passengers in First Class as I understood it. Surely the members of the LUCK Gene POOL Club cannot be possibly exposed to such an unwanted irritant. After ALL, they did pay more money for this Advantage! and you know how we must cater to the whims of the JOB Creators! they just may not create any Jobs for the little people who are riding on the Wings! :)

[...] Story here I've hated AA since 1992. __________________ With $16,000,000,000,000 in national debt, a family of 4 is on the hook for $204,000. Please vote Romney/Ryan. [...]

Jake

September 7th, 2012
2:35 am

Well, I guess I’m never flying A.A. again. I hope the family ends up owning a portion of the airline after this, then I’ll fly it again.

cdm

September 7th, 2012
2:39 am

As the father of a child with Down Syndrome and a frequent flyer, I will make every effort to avoid flying AA. This pisses me off. Unfortunately this happens all the time – from school to other social settings. Folks need to get aclue. Most people with Down Syndrome are some of the most compliant people in the world. How this pilot could conclude that this child would be a problem is based on pure ingnorance.

Bonnie Saxton

September 7th, 2012
2:47 am

I have one biological Down Syndrome daughter and 2 adopted ones. I also have another adopted daughter with mental disabilities. We are all flying AA in Oct so you can see how this article upset me. My daughters are all adults, seasoned travelers, courteous, cute, and well liked. But…is that going to make a difference if someone wants to make up a story about them so they can discriminate without it seeming like they are.
I also wonder why there are no public witnesses to this event. If I had been in that airport I would be all over the news with the truth of what happened. They need an outsider to step up and tell the real story.
I am sure this boy, age 16, was more on the level of a 5 year old mentally. Does that mean every child that runs around while waiting for a plane ride will be told they can’t fly. What about the crying babies who never stop during the whole ride. Or, as in the case of my friend, a dog who barked the whole trip.
If airlines are going to start the process of only allowing people they see fit, to fly, then where does it stop.
I am not flying first class. Wish I was, but maybe because we are lowly coach no one will bother us.
I have emailed AA customer service with my concern. We will see if they respond.

cdm

September 7th, 2012
2:51 am

My daughter is the most generous, welcoming person I know. Anyone that has a child or knows someone with Down Syndrome can testify to this. The pilot should have done himself a favor to learn what being human really is and spend spom time with this young man. If he had done this he would have welcomed him to first class!

kevin

September 7th, 2012
6:41 am

bernie……jealous much?

motherjanegoose

September 7th, 2012
6:56 am

I am confused and feel like there must be more to this story.

I have NEVER seen anyone denied boarding and have seen some interesting people at the gate and on the plane. Of course, I have NOT been in every airport and I rarely fly American Airlines.

EWR to LA is a long flight. Currently showing a 6 hour flight with a $600 price tag per person for a month in advance. Not sure why they would want to irritate a family of three, who are eligible to upgrade ( typically a frequent flier) on a whim. If they have flown more than 2 dozen times, with him, that is quite a bit.

I personally get antsy on a flight over 4 hours and I fly all the time. Just my opinion.

American Airlines issued a statement, I read previously online, but I cannot find it now. Anyone?

Not sure how valid this is but it is interesting: the pilot can lose their job and that is typically a VERY well paying job on that type of plane/flight:

http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20100124052735AAuB4Gw

motherjanegoose

September 7th, 2012
7:01 am

rethinking….CAN be a VERY well paying job. The larger the plane, the more experienced the pilot. A cross country flight is typically a larger plane. Also seniority of the pilot.

catlady

September 7th, 2012
7:02 am

Are fat, drunk white men also a secyrity risk?

A

September 7th, 2012
7:15 am

Just shameful. AA is already in trouble; this will be the death of that airline.

Aquagirl

September 7th, 2012
7:22 am

Are fat, drunk white men also a secyrity[sic] risk?

Yes, and they’re regularly denied boarding also. And they complain loudly that those fascists won’t let them fly, they weren’t causing any trouble, blah, blah, blah.

I’m with mjg, there is more to this story. We’ve seen these stories before—outraged parent calls media, claims airline (school, department store, etc.) went nuts and OMG!!!!! Later we find out that they weren’t telling the whole truth about their child’s behavior.

But watch the angry comments pile up from people who unquestioningly accept mom and dad’s account.

Jeff

September 7th, 2012
7:39 am

I would be more willing to ban poorly behaving adults from 1st class. The adults have MORE control over their behavior, yet choose to act like a$$es.

If someone desn’t ilke it, let them exchange seats with someone in coach. You’ll see how important the issue really is when you make that proposal.

Mayhem

September 7th, 2012
7:45 am

It just kills me that some “personnel” know more about the situation with YOUR kid, than you do.

I think down’s Syndrom children are beautiful!!!

Aquagirl

September 7th, 2012
8:12 am

Interesting: A quick google search for “Robert Vanderhorst” gives you the website of a personal injury attorney by that name who lives in Porterville, CA. Unless there are two Robert Vanderhorsts in Portersville, it’s the same guy.

Yeah, wayyyyyyy more to this story.

DB

September 7th, 2012
8:24 am

American Airlines better have their ducks in a row on this one, or there is going to be hell — and a few million dollars! — to pay!

motherjanegoose

September 7th, 2012
8:27 am

@ Mayhem… respectfully…I have had many parents tell me, ” I do not know HOW you get my child to do that! He/she will never do it for me! He/she behaves so much better for you! You really know my child.”

Airline personnel may not know much about children but they do know a bit about having to ground a plane. I am just thinking off the top of my head here but a flight to LAX could connect on to an international flight. Perhaps the personnel were weighing the odds of:

1. having to ground a large plane in the middle of the US. I suppose DFW would work as it is American’s base.
2. a LOT of passengers missing their connections

In any event, it is a matter of deciding who is going to be a bigger problem…one family or an entire plane. Certainly, the trip could have been absolutely seamless and everyone potentially overreacted. I, for one, would not want the backlash on either option.

I obviously do not know the ruling on when and if they have to ground a plane. I have been on planes that were grounded for weather and the complaining you hear is ridiculous. REALLY? Did you want to fly right through tornado warnings to get to ATL and even if we do land all by ourselves :), the flight crew cannot come out to us, as it is lightening. HELLO? We will still be sitting on the plane.

Flying is really not as fun as it used to be. I took mine when they were small but it was not near the headache it is now.

motherjanegoose

September 7th, 2012
8:28 am

comment gone…guess I am only allowed two today….LOL.

T-Square

September 7th, 2012
9:00 am

Aquagirl – Don’t want to read too much into the fact that he is an attorney (I’ve met a few decent ones, even personal injury attorneys), but I’m guessing they got bumped for a semi-legitimate reason and he is screaming because he smells the case of his career. But then again, I could just be a cynic. Who knows?

Grasshopper

September 7th, 2012
9:02 am

Something is fishy about this story.

If the kid is just sitting there why would the pilot even notice him? Sounds like the lawyer is out for some quick dough and using his kid as an ATM.

BlondeHoney

September 7th, 2012
9:12 am

I’m with Aquagirl (as I usually am); there is more to this story than Dad the personal injury attorney is telling. And he is the personal injury attorney you found in Porterdale, Aquagirl; it was in the article I read on nbcnews.com

Aquagirl

September 7th, 2012
9:16 am

Something is fishy about this story.

If only we had a type of person to ask some questions—you know, like:
What was the second airline that made the kid sit in back? It wasn’t American.
Did anyone else notice this kid’s behavior?
Why would a presumably experienced pilot with a major airline suddenly get freaked out by a kid with down’s syndrome?

Then that person could write a headline that wasn’t sloppy and misleading (how many people think AA made the kid sit in back?) followed by a real story, which might be less like a press release by Mr. Slip ‘N Fall.

Instead, we get this slop, thrown into the trough by Theresa.

Yeah, there’s some shameful behavior here all right.

BlondeHoney

September 7th, 2012
9:18 am

Caught in the filter sigh

fishy joe

September 7th, 2012
9:21 am

Truth is, the FAA rules allow the pilot to remove any passenger or package he wants and really doesn’t have to give a reason.It is his call as to what or who is allowed on his aircraft. Was it smart? probably not, but it was completely legal. I’ve been in aviation for over 25 years, I agree with the others, there is a lot more to this than a captain denying to board a kid with disabilities.

BTW, AA is in backruptcy court, any claim would be subject to the judge’s discretion. Once you file, you turn over control of the company to the presiding judge until an exit plan is agreed upon by the creditors and court and debtor in possession financing is arranged.

Uh, fishy joe...

September 7th, 2012
9:48 am

…AA is about to come out of bankruptcy, so depending on if a lawsuit is filed AFTER the dismissal of the bankruptcy then they WILL have access to all of AA assets and not just those to which the bankruptcy referee agrees…but now that I re-read you last paragraph that is basically what you said…

fishy joe

September 7th, 2012
10:25 am

Uh, fishy joe…

Yep, once they emerge all is fair game but that doesn’t seem likely to be anytime soon.

!

September 7th, 2012
10:29 am

Plain old discrimination…shameful.

Do something about it

September 7th, 2012
10:32 am

Tell ‘em what you think:

AAdvantage Customer Service
1-800-882-8880

Jessica

September 7th, 2012
10:33 am

@Grasshopper, good point! If the kid was well-behaved, the pilot probably would not have noticed him. If he was acting like an unruly five-year old, the pilot may have made a reasonable judgment that an ADULT-SIZED hyperactive kid poses a safety risk to passengers.
I suppose there is some small chance that the pilot has something against people with Down Syndrome, but it seems a lot more reasonable to assume he was just doing his job. I have known some really nice children and adults with Down Syndrome, but I have met at least one who was an-out-of-control little terror. It wasn’t the kid’s fault, though, because his parents apparently didn’t bother to discipline him at all. If anyone asked them to reign in his behavior (stop him from breaking the window blinds/ripping pages out of books/hitting people), they got extremely defensive and accused the person who brought it up of being uncaring and judgmental.

samantha

September 7th, 2012
10:35 am

I have a brother with down syndrome and he is the best loving, caring and huggable person I have ever met. He is sever down syndrome and we have NEVER had any problems with him for having this special need. I believe that first class for him would be more relaxing, anyone who has relations to a person with down syndorme knows that they love less people and bigger and better space is also a plus. I say no matter who pays for their ticket to anywhere on anything has the right of thtat puchase. If hes disruptive, then you need to remove every child under the age of ten, I hear kids cry hours at a t ime, running, jumping, kicking. If I were a passenger one this flight and saw how this family was treated I would have got off and went with another air line. Sorry for this air line but he is not the onle special need child in the world and I would like to see you try and band all people with needs from all over the owld.

Mike

September 7th, 2012
10:47 am

Knowing the father is a personal injury attorney really changes the story.

I wonder if the boy’s behavior led the pilot to believe he’d get claustrophobic and try to open the door in flight?

catlady

September 7th, 2012
10:48 am

Sorry about the spelling, aqua girl. I had a stuck key.

What is miserable is when the person gets drunk AFTER the plane is airborne. Then the jerk proceeds to insult anyone within hearing distance with his speculations about the purity of the females on board. You can’t put them off over the ocean!

Marti in San Diego

September 7th, 2012
11:15 am

Post 9-11 flight crews have too much autonomy when deciding to boot any passenger.

I was a regional manager for a fairly large company a few years back. My team won an incentive trip to Cabo San Lucas. On the return flight one of my employees asked to buy benedril at the airport shop and was overheard by a member of the flight crew. The employee did have a slight rash on one forearm, but really nothing out of the ordinary.

When we got to the gate, she was told that she was a ‘flight risk’ and could not board the flight. After speaking with several airport and airline personnel, it was determined that if she got a note clearing her to fly, she could board the flight. We arranged to have a local doc (not super easy on a Sunday in Cabo) come out an examine her.

$250 later she received a shot that eliminated the rash, a check up and a clean bill of health for the employee. We presented the documentation to the gate agent and the employee was still denied boarding. Despite the written documentation from the doctor and no evidence of a rash, we finally were told that the flight attendant “didn’t feel comfortable,” and thus nothing we could do would be enough for my employee to board the plane.

Luckily there was another flight into LAX that evening, so we did manage to get her home. The experience really soured me on post 9-11 travel.

BlondeHoney

September 7th, 2012
11:20 am

Post stuck in the filter so I will try again…I’m with Aquagirl on this (and most everything else too); personal injury attorney Dad is not telling the whole story here. Wish we could hear from a witness to what happened because it doesn’t make sense that when the family did depart on a different airline, they were placed in the back of the plane surrounded by empty seats…

motherjanegoose

September 7th, 2012
11:26 am

@ Marti…while you may have realized it was a minor rash, perhaps not everyone did. Coming back into the states with something you caught outside of the states is typically not the same as flying from Kansas City to Chicago.

I had Gutate Psoriasis ( sp?) several years ago and had to fly to a meeting. NOT CONTAGIOUS. I made sure I had a note with me, from my Physician just in case. I was going to Florida and the MD said the sun would actually be good for it.

I once sat, on a flight, next to someone who hacked for an hour straight and asked if I could move to another seat. I was on a 4 hour flight and felt sure I would be sick, the next day, from the germs being spewed. I left my nice window exit row seat to be wedge into a middle seat. Worth it to me.

Read this:
http://www.foxnews.com/health/2012/04/26/airplane-quarantine-scare-reminds-us-were-all-at-risk/

motherjanegoose

September 7th, 2012
11:33 am

@ BlondeHoney…and what did it cost THAT airline to keep several rows of seats empty? Let’s say 2 rows total ( just in front of them or behind too) of 4 seats per row but it is probably more like 6 or 8 seats. So, at the minimum it would be 8 seats at $600 per seat…do the math. I fly quite a bit and it is RARE for planes to have much wiggle room with empty seats. Did American have to comp. those seats to another airline or did they just eat it? Are we told which airline they eventually flew? Seems like the parents would want to extend a GIANT handshake to that airline. Does anyone know?

Aquagirl

September 7th, 2012
11:42 am

Sorry about the spelling, aqua girl. I had a stuck key.

Oh, I don’t have a problem with the occassional missspelling. :)

Knowing the father is a personal injury attorney really changes the story.

I like knowing all sides to a story and getting pertinent facts—Unlike modern day journalists who prefer misleading headlines and lots of hits on their blog.

Denise

September 7th, 2012
11:51 am

There is more to the story. I wish a witness would come forward and tell it so that people would be informed rather than getting riled up one way or the other.

I agree that children and adults, alike, cause turmoil on airplanes. I was just kicked the whole way on a flight and I promise it took all I had not to snatch that little boy’s legs. If it was his mother rather than his sister sitting with him I would have said something. (What was she really going to do? I would have really gotten pissed if a teenager would have mouthed off at me.) And no, adults don’t use inside voices either and that is aggravating. So yes, everybody can cause anybody to be uncomfortable on a flight they paid for.

What I don’t understand in this case is why, if the situation what that the kid was unfit to fly period, he was seated on another flight in COACH? If he was disruptive in first class why was he okay to be seated in coach? Was it because the pilot didn’t want him to disturb the people in first class or did the pilot feel like he didn’t want the kid that near to the pilot’s door for whatever reason? If it is because he didn’t want the first class customers disturbed then that’s some foolishness. This family was upgraded to first class so they had every right to be seated there as anyone else.

HB

September 7th, 2012
12:12 pm

MJG, it may have just been a flight that wasn’t full, so no extra cost to the airline (if Sunday night on a 3-day weekend is like Saturday nights usually are, extra seats in coach would not be unusual). Whether or not what AA claimed was true, the second airline probably felt that had to treat the young man as a security risk based on the first pilot’s judgement to cover their own butts. As for coach, there’s no reason the second airline would need to accommodate the 1st class upgrade for a customer coming from AA. They would likely offer any available upgrades to their own frequent fliers first.

Native Atlantan

September 7th, 2012
12:17 pm

@Aquagirl — simple solution for you, if you don’t like Theresa’s writing style just skip the article. Jeez….deflect much?

Aquagirl

September 7th, 2012
12:31 pm

if you don’t like Theresa’s writing style just skip the article. Jeez….deflect much?

No, deflection would be suddenly seizing on the topic of “Is Pluto Really A Planet?” Jeez…English much? I do not think that word means what you think it means.

When folks like Theresa fling poo, they don’t have to clean it up. They don’t end up with PR nightmares, months of angry complaints, or lawsuits. Bad journalism has consequences.

If you don’t give a flying flip, fine. Go read the Enquirer. I expect a little more from a Red and Black UGA grad writing in a major newspaper.

Native Atlantan

September 7th, 2012
12:36 pm

@Aquagirl….Right….so you fling your poo all over any and every blog available…..needy, very need you are.

Bernie

September 7th, 2012
12:44 pm

kevin @ 6:41 am – LOL! never and why would I ever want to be such a crude and heartless person whose God resides in their back pocket? Maybe you felt the nasty sting of a description of your self!

atlanta mom

September 7th, 2012
12:46 pm

“He was not ready to fly, that was our perspective,” Miller said. “We rebooked the family ”
So, he wasn’t ready to fly on American, but they were comfortable putting him on another airline. What’s that about?
As for “bad behavior”, I’ll take the 16 year old Down Syndrome child before a 2 year old, any time.

Bernie

September 7th, 2012
12:47 pm

Native Atlantan @ 12:36 pm – A very nasty habit of hers that provides cheap thrills of joy. sadly, that are only short lived.

motherjanegoose

September 7th, 2012
12:51 pm

@ HB fair point but why has no one mentioned the name of the redeeming airline?. After all, we are talking about EWR to LAX and that would be a LONG drive, if the family had to do it. Did I miss it?

Native Atlantan

September 7th, 2012
12:59 pm

Thanks Bernie. I know how she operates, unfortunately, she and I are normally on the same side of the discussions — especially on Jay’s blog. But the tone and tenor of her comments give us progressive a bad name.

Aquagirl

September 7th, 2012
1:11 pm

unfortunately, she and I are normally on the same side of the discussions — especially on Jay’s blog. But the tone and tenor of her comments give us progressive a bad name.

Actually Bernie and I are usually on the same side of discussions too, I’m not sure what burr got under his/her bum today. And I’m also not sure why you’re unconcerned about lousy journalism. We’re divergent here because I dislike sloppy thinking from anyone, least of all people who are supposed to be responsible for what they write.

And really, what gives “progressives” a bad name more than your gossipy exchange? If you don’t like my comments, take the advice you gave me and move along. If you think this is a wonderful post from Theresa I’m genuinely open to whatever points you’d like to make.

yari

September 7th, 2012
1:18 pm

what a shame!! this is discrimination! the boy should have been allowed on the plane! does this mean that all the crying babys that are on planes are going to get kicked off too!!!? its not like the boy was alone! his parents were with him and by what the mother says he wasnt running around or causing any kind of distraction..mybrother has down syndrome and if this would have happened to me i would be really angry! the boy should not have been treated any different i find it pointless to have to have sat the young man away from other passangers! and they reimbursed the family with the upgrating to first class?? THATS THE LEAST THEY COULD HAVE DONE!!!!

Native Atlantan

September 7th, 2012
1:37 pm

gossipy? get real….your word jumble is tiring….so, I’d make the same recommendation to you…drop it.