American Airlines Controversy: Down Syndrome Boy Denied Boarding

In what appears to be a classic he said-she said scenario, American Airlines denied boarding to a 16-year-old boy with Down syndrome because he was “agitated,” “not ready to fly” and/or a “security risk” – or so reports the Associated Press.

The pilot of the plane reportedly weighed in on the situation and deemed the boy unfit to fly. [Editor’s note: American Airlines responded to FareCompare’s request for comment after this post was initially published; see a spokesman’s response below.]

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Family: Airline Didn’t Want to ‘Disturb’ First Class Passengers

Robert Vanderhorst says his son Bede was quiet and behaving himself before Sunday’s flight from Newark to Los Angeles, and the family further claims they have the video to prove it. Bede’s parents see a shallower motive at play: they believe the airline didn’t want their son “disturbing other passengers in first class” which is where the family was seated. Upper class passengers are especially valuable to airlines, as they either pay big bucks for their seats or fly often enough to upgrade.

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Ultimately, the family flew another airline home to California, one of two dozen flights Bede has taken.

American Airlines Responds, Says Boy was “Agitated”

American Airline’s Matt Miller told FareCompare that boarding was denied for the safety and comfort of all passengers. “The young man was agitated and running around the gate area prior to boarding,” said Miller who also acknowledged that at times the boy was calm, but added, “when it came time to board he continued to be agitated.” According to Miller, they attempted to work with the family to see if they could help calm him, to no avail. He also said, “The cell phone video provided by the family was filmed during a calm moment.” As always, airline pilots have the final say as to who can and cannot board.

Down Syndrome Advocate Condemns Airline Action

FareCompare spoke with Sara Weir of the National Down Syndrome Society who said American owes the family an apology since the media reports the organization has seen make “no mention of any specific behavior that merits the label of a flight risk.” Weir also pointed out, “It is clear that there is a lack of knowledge, understanding and awareness of Down syndrome among the staff at American Airlines.”

However, the NDSS website also debunks the myth that people with Down syndrome are “always happy,” and according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine (seen on the government’s National Institutes of Health site), “As children with Down syndrome grow and become aware of their limitations, they may also feel frustration and anger.” Again, Bede’s parents say no bad behavior took place.

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Other Controversial Passenger Decisions by Airlines

This is not the first time controversy has erupted over an airline decision to deny boarding – or to kick a passenger off a plane.

Late last year, actor Alec Baldwin was kicked off his flight for allegedly failing to turn off his electronic device (and he’s been getting his money’s worth out of that publicity ever since). In July, a woman said she was not allowed to board her Southwest flight because a gate agent accused her of being drunk. She left the airport to get a blood alcohol test at a local hospital which appear to back up her claim that she was sober. In March, JetBlue kicked a family off a plane because they reportedly couldn’t get their toddlers buckled up in a timely fashion. And in August, American Airlines made news when a flight attendant asked a nonverbal autistic teen to turn off her iPad which she uses to communicate – though, to be fair, they asked her to turn it off so the plane could take off.

Malaysia Airlines goes even further – the carrier bans babies in first class.

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Published: September 5, 2012