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


September 7th, 2012
2:08 pm

Way too much emotion-based responses here. Perhaps need to get all the facts first before calling for American Airlines employees to be lead to the guillotine, eh?

There is reasonable suspicion that the young man in question was not, at the time in question, acting in a way not suitable for the plane & its passsengers.

Man, does everyone believe everything they read these days without critical thinking?


September 7th, 2012
2:15 pm

He was put on a United flight, was assigned row 25 but later told they would have to sit in row 27. Rows 25 and 26 were empty but when passengers tried to move to those rows to get more space were told that no one was allowed to sit in those rows effectively isolating the family, as if they were contagious. I would be insulted as well.

Regarding the initial episode. They were told he could not board because he was a flight risk because he was running, yelling and excitable. The video from his mom shows him calmly sitting playing a bit with his hat. Granted that doesn’t mean nothing happened earlier but AA has never released videos or objective witnesses to support their story. The part that got my attention and really convinced me that AA was lying was that they said he was running. Most children with DS do not have an easy time running due to low muscle tone and problems with balance. When you combine those problems with his weight. I have no doubt that he was not running. That, the video from the mom and the lack of evidence from AA have me completely convinced that AA was making up a story likely because someone in first class did not want to sit near him. That said I hope AA somehow comes clean, says they reviewed the tapes and it turns out one of their employees was wrong..whatever. There will always be ignorant people. But AA let it go on and on. I don’t even think they should necessarily fire anyone–that could ensure that they hate people with disabilities if they don’t already. AA does however need to realize that they cannot deny someone a seat merely because it makes someone in first class uncomfortable. In that case where would it stop?


September 7th, 2012
2:40 pm

Pat, quit pretending you know what happened. You weren’t there. You don’t know.

I’ve seen plenty of agitated kids with Down’s Syndrome. It’s not their fault but I can understand why a pilot who is responsible for the safety and comfort of several hundred people would have some hesitation about allowing an unruly 160 pound board an aircraft.

Uh, Pat...

September 7th, 2012
4:37 pm

…Grasshopper is correct – and, you evidently, have never been to a Special Olympics where running and jumping is done by Down’s participants quite nicely, thank you very much…

William Quantrill

September 7th, 2012
4:55 pm

Maybe if they put the little window licker in a crate he could ride in steerage with the dogs and cats. NOBODY wants to sit on a plane with a fat retard acting up. Tranquilizer darts could be another option.


September 7th, 2012
5:14 pm

Even if they were re-booked onto a later (in coach) flight, why was there a two-row barrier around the family?


September 7th, 2012
6:20 pm

There has got to be more to this story…it just does not make any sense. All of the Downs syndrome kids I have ever met have been truly sweet and loving people. Either the pilot had a fear of disabled people in general and over reacted to this child, or he must have seen something alarming. There should be a witness in this situation who could shed some light.


September 7th, 2012
6:29 pm

The Problem is that this occurred in FIRST CLASS….. with the ELITES.
They paid too much for their area of the Plane to tolerate the Little People’s problems.


September 7th, 2012
7:01 pm

Just when you think our country couldn’t get more disgusting…this!

Uh, Pat...

September 7th, 2012
7:10 pm

Enter your comments here

If they were in first class...

September 7th, 2012
7:10 pm

…sounds like the Democrat pilot was discriminating against a republican…


September 7th, 2012
7:21 pm

If they were in first class… @ 7:10 pm – Most Pilots are Republicans…:) they are the only ones who can afford such lessons! LOL!
If he were a Democrat the kid would fly the PLANE! just to make ALL the Republicans on board NUTS! That would mean ALL of 1st CLASS! :)

Fresh Spring

September 7th, 2012
7:33 pm

LOTS more to this story than we are privy to. Seeking media attention/sympathy ? hmmmm

Autism Mom

September 7th, 2012
8:07 pm

I am the mother of an autistic child – because of the scope and nature of his disability and how he behaves, I would never book him into first class. I am his mother. I can make that decision, to what he can handle, what is respectful of others, and what is fair to us. Bede’s parents booked him into first class because he wasn’t going to be a disruption. Their call. The life of a special needs parents is that you are constantly second guessed when you are out in the community – if for no other reason you are out and there is still a whole huge segment of the population that don’t want to see our kids, period. The whole institutionalization thing…

That said, my other son and I flew first class from DC to Dallas in March. There was a baby in first class that screamed the entire way. No one asked the parents to move, the pilots didn’t say they would be distracted – we all had to suck it up, including my kid, silently engrossed in his DS for the duration of the flight. AA’s line was a load of crap and United shoving that family in the last row of coach with rows between them and anyone else is just crap. My fervent hope is that this family proceeds with an ADA claim through the government so rules and case law can replace “pilot discretion” and the trampling of the civil rights of the disabled and their families.


September 7th, 2012
9:57 pm

William Quantrill @ 4:55 pm – A Mean and not so nice comment. This one must be a Mitt Romney Republican. You can tell by his cruelness.


September 7th, 2012
10:04 pm

Excuse me Mr. Quantrill, but that comment you made saying that this individual could be put in a crate and ride with the cats and dogs, plus calling him the R-word is very, very insulting! People with disabilities deserve the same respect as others do. As a person with high functioning autism/Asperger’s syndrome, I find the R-word insulting and very derogatory! Comments like the one you made make people with developmental disabilities feel bad about themselves. People with special needs have made many contibutions to society, lots of them have jobs, and lots of them have advocated for themselves and others with disabilities to make society more accessible and accepting
of them(myself included). And just to let you know people with special needs have abilities too! So please don’t use the R-word! It is a terrible word.


September 7th, 2012
10:24 pm

The “redeeming” airline is United. I’ve flown several times on American, their customer service is the absolute pits. Even though I have the misfortune to live in DFW, I still fly Delta whenever possible, even if it means changing planes. American has treated me that poorly in the past.


September 7th, 2012
11:53 pm

What many of the commenters seem to be lacking is personal experience. My 5 year-old daughter has Down syndrome, and my wife is the president of our local DS support group. There are many holes in the story, but they are in people’s perceptions. First, there are still many people–even some doctors–who misunderstand DS and assume DS people are “retards” and “reckless.” People with DS by definition have hypotonia (low muscle tone), so AA’s argument that he was “running around” and “being dangerous” is ludicrous and an obvious lie. Second, DS people are almost uniformly sweet and accepting for others (a natural naivete). Because of my daughter and my wife’s organization, I am around DS people all the time and I have yet to met a “dangerous” one. Lastly, the most likely explanation fits the pattern I have seen and experienced: many still feel it’s all right to discriminate against DS people, perhaps out of fear. I used to fly American Airlines…not anymore.


September 8th, 2012
12:22 am

Grasshopper, no American Airlines pilot flying EWR to LAX is responsible for the “safety and comfort of several hundred people.” AA flies one nonstop flight per day from EWR to LAX. The aircraft is a 737-800, which seats either 148 or 160 pax, depending on the configuration.

Samantha, were you drunk when you chimed in? Your spelling and grammar are atrocious. If you live in the South, congratulations. You have confirmed so many stereotypes and set your region back a decade.

I would love to hear from anyone who thinks they now how AA managed to convince another airline to take their “undesirable” family of three and block two entire rows for them. Please, someone convince me how AA’s purported security issue trumps another airlines revenue-management protocols.


September 8th, 2012
12:24 am

Pardon my typo. I meant to type “know,” not “now,” in line 1 of paragraph 3.

1 chromosome too many

September 8th, 2012
5:25 am

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Christy Love

September 8th, 2012
11:56 am

Now I know why children behave the way they do. They just watch “grown ups”.

Porterville resident

September 8th, 2012
4:20 pm

Waaaay more to the story. I have a relative that is a neighbor of this family. He says the 16 year old boy is a holy terror. A bus comes to pick him up everyday for school with a guard assigned just for him. He has to sit in the back with the guard for the others’ protection.

Robert Vanderhorst is a high profile, if not the highest profiled attorney in this area. He is out for blood, as usual.


September 8th, 2012
7:51 pm

It is interesting how the media and bloggers are all over this story. Reading accounts of the teen and family being asked to take another flight are shocking indeed.
A few years ago, we lost our baby while on an international flight. I have tried to reflect on that incident and the stress parents traveling with children undergo.

Parents traveling with children undergo a lot more stress planning and preparing for the trip. … to be asked to take another flight can be excruciating. In this particular situation, all the facts are not in front of us. I wonder if one ought to give a benefit of doubt to the airline ground staff also? (Especially if other passengers had noticed something that would have alarmed them)

(ref: my Amazon book “A child lost in flight” )


September 9th, 2012
1:06 am

If being agitated and running around at the gate are grounds for barring children and their parents from boarding, most families could not fly. At issue is not how the children behave before boarding, but how they behave after boarding and before take-off.

There is no doubt that this child and his parents were discriminated against unlawfully.

Airlines have been exercise too much muscle lately, barring people because of the way they dress or their appearance among other reasons, despite the fact that such behavior is perfectly legal and protected by the US Constitution.

Airlines serve at the pleasure of the FAA. And the FAA answers to the American people through our elected represents. It is about time that the Congress directed the FAA to pull the airlines’ tickets when they bar people for capricious reasons.


September 9th, 2012
10:42 am

As a passenger who has listened to babies scream, had children kick my seatback, and endured other similar behaviors non-stop from Georgia to California, I would like this pilot’s name so I can fly with him every time I fly.

I understand fair and non-discriminatory, but I also think if I sit there and behave my 64 y/o self, then I deserve the same behavior from others. The rest of the passengers, the flight crew and everyone else on the plane has the right to a safe and semi-peaceful flight. There will be exceptions, I am sure, and that is fine. But if the pilot thinks a passenger might be a problem serious enough to warrant that passenger not being allowed to fly, then the pilot owes it to everyone else on that flight to keep that passenger from flying. Perhaps the pilot was worried about the child getting trapped in the lavatory and going berserk? Heck, I worry about that..or having the seatbelt warning come on, hit an air pocket and cause me to levitate?

And since the family flew isolated in the rear of the plane that they did fly on, perhaps the original pilot WAS afraid the child might go for a door in mid-flight? He is a big boy and might be difficult to stop if that was his goal?

Perhaps Amtrak would be an option? Beautiful scenery, getting to sleep on a real train? Eat on the train? I would think any child would love that.


September 9th, 2012
11:52 am

It is clear that the airline was trying to ensure the comfort of the elite…who also get the protection of a curtain and better access to rest rooms…we poor plebes just have to make do with inadequate arrangements. Heaven forbid that first class passengers should be disturbed by having to share space with a person with disabilities. I hope the lawsuit to follow will be very successful…


September 9th, 2012
11:55 am

I can only hope that the lawsuit that will follow this discriminatory action will be very successful. May I also inquire about the far ranging powers that airline personnel seem to possess? Is there no regulation? No oversight? No common sense?


September 9th, 2012
11:57 am

September 8th, 2012
12:22 am

“Grasshopper, no American Airlines pilot flying EWR to LAX is responsible for the “safety and comfort of several hundred people.” AA flies one nonstop flight per day from EWR to LAX. The aircraft is a 737-800, which seats either 148 or 160 pax, depending on the configuration.”

Oh! Well if it’s only 160 people that makes a huge difference doesn’t it?

Debbie Jones

September 9th, 2012
12:53 pm

I agree with someone earlier who said if the young man were just sitting there playing with his hat, the pilot would not have noticed him. There must be more to the story.


September 9th, 2012
4:07 pm

@Passenger, Grasshopper and Debbie…thanks!

@ ann…most anyone can fly in 1st class, if the are willing to pay the price. BTW… the beef is also different at Ruth Chris than Wendys!

I have never paid for a 1st class seat. I have been upgraded often due to being a frequent flier. I try to be on my best behavior, when I sit with those who are spending thousands of dollars to sit in a roomier section than those who bought their last minute seat for $129 r/t. This, to me, is no different than those who pay more to live in certain neighborhoods. The expectations are simply different and the benefits too.

I typically find the flight crew to have more common sense than the passengers, as they have spent more hours in a plane.


September 9th, 2012
7:28 pm

Two sides to every story….what we know as facts today, down syndrome teen denied access to flight and his dad is a personal injury atty.

Mary M.

September 9th, 2012
7:30 pm

Knowing a person with Down Syndrome is a gift. I have flown with my friend with Down Syndrome whenever possible we fly first class because it makes traveling easier. It is hard to imagine that this pilot spoke with the boy or knows someone who has Down Syndrome and still made this decision.


September 10th, 2012
12:14 am

this seriously upsets me, i will avoid flying with them and am considering calling to complain about this. the actions by the airline company were seriously flawed.

My name isn't Medium Coffee

September 10th, 2012
3:42 pm

Unfortunately there isn’t any proof of discrimination. People are getting too wrapped up in what they want to believe about the situation. It seems like the parents are really hung-up on their son’s disability, to the point that they expect him to be treated differently because of it (allowed to fly after he’s been assessed a flight-risk).

I wrote an article about it, please feel free to let me know what you think:


September 10th, 2012
4:59 pm

Mia C

September 10th, 2012
5:06 pm

Dear Porterville Resident: If you knew anything about how special education works…sigh. That is not a GUARD on the special education bus, it is an AIDE. That is how the special ed bus works- there are aides on it to help the kids and they will not let a child get off the bus unless they are being handed directly to a teacher, aide, or parent. This is for ALL special ed kids that ride the bus, not just this one.

And if this kid was really a handful when he flies, why would the parents fly him all over all the time? Answer: they wouldn’t. Because it is beyond exhausting dealing with a developmentally disabled person when they don’t want to cooperate.


September 11th, 2012
2:19 pm

After teaching for almost 35 years, at many grade levels, those aides on the bus ARE there to help the students. BUT, they are also there to keep order. The Porterville person did not say, but if he is the only one on that bus, that might indicate a problem with his behavior. I don’t know from what is written here. I do know that it is doubtful that the pilor wanted him off his plane for no reason. This is just like the parents that come to school, hear the teacher’s side of the story and refuse to believe it. Always take what a parent of a special needs child says with a grain of salt.


September 11th, 2012
3:29 pm

If discrimination was really the cause of the pilot’s decision and the parents are sincerely upset about it, then there should be a settlement that AA requires its pilots to do work with disabled people and attend sensitivity classes. NO monetary settlement should be necessary. This is an issues of morals and repairing moral wrongs. Nobody was monetarily damaged. Is this story is as they claim it to be then this pilot disrespected the boy and his family. People need to learn that not everything can/should be fixed with a monetary payment.