Do Some Airlines Discriminate Against Passengers With Special Needs?

By Robert Firpo-Cappiello
May 12, 2015
Airplane window
Courtesy lonnieclar/myBudgetTravel

ABC News reports that an Oregon woman believes her family of four was kicked off a flight by United Airlines because her 15-year-old daughter has autism.

A variety of accounts confirm that the family asked the flight staff for special consideration for their daughter's food preferences, noting that the girl, who has trouble communicating, would have a "meltdown" if she was not provided with a hot meal. After initial resistance from a flight attendant, the girl was served rice with jambalaya and she traveled quietly and did not disturb her fellow passengers. Reports also confirm that after the girl's needs had been met, the plane made an unexpected landing and the captain requested the assistance of medics and police in removing the girl and her family from the flight. The family has filed a complaint with the Department of Transportation.

But for those of us who've traveled with babies; toddlers; children and adults with sensory integration issues such as autism or behavioral challenges such as attention deficit and hyperactivity; and older adults with physical, emotional, and cognitive challenges, this incident literally hit home. Do some airlines discriminate against passengers with special needs?

United Airlines makes a solid commitment to travelers with special needs on its website, as do all the major carriers. And at least one U.S. airport has gone the extra mile to help prepare autistic kids for travel: We applaud the Boston Logan airport for holding Wings for Autism events that allow families with autistic children to get to know the airport and the travel process, from entering the airport to check-in, security, and boarding. It's a great way for the kids to get more comfortable with the experience, and also helps travel professionals become more aware of the challenges faced by children with special needs. We only wish the program would be adopted by more airports!

We want to know: Have you experienced discrimination on the basis of special needs when flying?

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