When a travel adventure becomes a nightmare – United Flight 1535

Total Assessible TravelEditor’s Note: We are preempting this week’s Total Travel column by Tarita to further analyse what happened aboard United Flight 1535 from Houston to Portland.

We all make mistakes and things never go as planned. Just as the situation spiraled out of control, so has the media reports and reactions by the disability community. What really happened we won’t ever be able to confirm, but we do have enough information provided from Juliette’s mother, Donna Beegle, to see a pattern emerge.

Just as passengers began to take sides with only their own perceptions, so too has the public.

Social Media, particularly within the disability community has exploded as reported yesterday by another editor, Jo Worgan. Many of these comments come from those in the autism community that I call friends, but I beg to disagree.  It was this Facebook Post by Autism Odysseys below (permission to reprint granted) that made this writer want to look a little deeper:

“This may not make me very popular. However, while there were may have been things the flight crew could have done differently – there may also have been things this parent could also have done to have avoided this situation. The hot meal issue and whether or not she should have planned ahead isn’t the primary issue (in my opinion). When she indicated to the flight crew that her daughter could have a meltdown and “scratch someone”, the flight crew had to take it as a threat. It’s similar to someone making a comment about a bomb in the airport – that person won’t be going anywhere. They have to take it seriously. We have one part of the equation with the video when they landed in SLC, we don’t know all that transpired before that. I’m not ready to crucify the flight crew as I’ve seen across the Internet today. I think this is a valuable learning experience for airlines AND parents alike. My husband is an airline pilot and I spent many years before I had kids, in airline customer service management so I feel that I can say there is plenty of room for improvement on BOTH sides.”

Autism Odysseys has published a post today to her blog entitled: “A request to the autism community” if you care to read more on her perspective. I totally agree that mistakes were made on both sides and continue to be.

United Airlines failed to manage any damage control of the incident and made matters worse by fueling the belief that this was a case of “fear of autism.” In a statement to KOIN 6 News, United Airlines spokeswoman Jennifer Dohm said,

“After working to accommodate Dr. Beegle and her daughter during the flight, the crew made the best decision for the safety and comfort of all of our customers and elected to divert to Salt Lake City after the situation became disruptive. We rebooked the customers on a different carrier and the flight continued to Portland.”

image taken from YouTube

image taken from YouTube

Employees for the airlines from the flight attendant to public relations continues to feed the notion of it all about a “behavioural issue.” Headlines from literally around the world suggest that the pilot did not “feel comfortable” with her on board, after a disturbance in the cabin, and decided to have her removed. If this was the case, I would be on the bandwagon with all the other critics.

Let’s step back for a moment to see if there was a point of no return for this story. I have to agree with Autism Odysseys.

Beegle told KOIN 6 News Donna Beegle explained that if her daughter didn’t get a hot meal, she would “get to the meltdown point” and maybe scratch someone.  In another report, Beegle says:

“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.'”

It is not clear if scratching was perceived as scratching someone else or self inflicted. Given the transferring of contagions today, the word “scratch” could easily be a trigger word. It probably required the staff to report it to the pilot for health reasons. How that message was transferred we won’t know, but the ball was set in motion. The die was cast probably before Juliette had even finished her hot meal.

KOIN 6 also reported that prior to the police coming on board to ask the family to debark, paramedics came on board and once arrived to where the family was sitting, checked to see if everything was OK. The family confirmed that there were no issues. She added that the paramedics alerted them they may be asked to leave the plane.

This clearly suggests that it had been reported to Air Traffic Control as a medical issue, first and foremost. If it was considered a safety issue, then the police would have been the first on the scene. The police did not have the authority to change what had been requested by the airlines and pilot and so the family was escorted off the plane.

Will this be an opportunity for learning?  

Probably not much as this is a ‘she said – he said’ event. Sometimes things go wrong and this is a case of going from bad to worse. Let’s stop playing the blame game. There will be no real winners but certainly a loser: United Airlines. The airlines will do a “post mortem” and perhaps announce some further training. Individuals will retreat into their strongly held views. Ms. Beegle, a public speaker who has to date focused on issues of poverty, hopefully will leverage this experience to advocate for those with disabilities.

The question I was asking myself is “What would I need to do differently in a similar situation?” But the right question came from Donna Beegle herself in a post on her own Facebook Timeline yesterday,

“Making a difference for people facing the impacts of living in poverty requires us to seek to understand the “why.” Once we understand, we can assist people in connecting to resources and opportunities they need to achieve their fullest potential.”

We have to ask why someone is reacting in a certain way and then have the patience to seek the truth and the courage to respond appropriately.

Post Script: A few hours ago I had the pleasure to read Autism with a side of fries blog post on this subject – Click BAIT! and I have to admit she has done a way better job than I have. Please head over and read her take on this. 

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