A Tale of Two Denied Boardings

Although we tend to think that the denied boarding of disabled passengers only happens in third world countries; two recent incidents occurred right here in North American airports. They are two totally different cases, and they each raise some interesting issues. Ultimately they were resolved in two drastically different ways — one good, and one not so good.

The first case involved a Florida man with terminal cancer, who wanted to make one last trip up north to Bangor, Maine to see his family. Mr. Hill made it up there OK, but Allegiant Airlines denied him boarding on the return trip.

The exact details of Mr. Hill’s condition are sketchy; only that he used a wheelchair and was probably sedated for his return trip. Ultimately MedLink, a third party contractor that determines if passengers are “fit to fly”, decided that it would be prudent to ground Mr. Hill. Allegiant followed those recommendations.

It should be noted that although a full refund was issued, Mr. Hill was forced to travel by car back to Florida. Apparently the drive was too taxing on him, and he was taken to the emergency room immediately upon his return. He died shortly thereafter.

Although I understand Mr. Hill’s wish to see his family one last time, I understand the airline’s decision to deny him passage. After all, nobody wants a passenger to die during the flight! In this case I think Allegiant made the right call for everybody concerned. Perhaps an air ambulance might have been a better choice for Mr. Hill; as they are set up to handle medical emergencies and they routinely deal with terminal patients.

The other denied boarding case involved 15-year old Avery Ottenbreit, who was refused a return flight to Regina on Canada’s WestJet. The issue at hand was Avery’s butterfly harness, which she wears for torso support. WestJet flight attendants had problems with the harness because they claimed it would prevent her from assuming the “brace” position in case of an emergency landing. Ultimately she was taken off the plane.

Granted, the crew has the ultimate say as far as passenger safety is concerned, but I disagree with their decision on this case. In the US you can’t take aboard any type of a harness that will strap you to the seat, unless it’s FAA approved. At this time only one model makes the cut, and it can only be used on children over 1 year old who weigh between 22-40 pounds.

But medical harnesses or casts aren’t really prohibited. So for example if you wanted to fly with a cervical collar or a back brace or even that very attractive black boot I had to wear when I broke my foot last year, then it’s not a problem. As long as you can sit down and the device isn’t physically attached to the seat, you’re usually good to go.

In this case, I think the problem came from the fact that Avery is a wheelchair-user with “spastic quadriplegic with cerebral palsy”. And she was traveling alone. Is it right that she got booted off the plane? No, but at least WestJet sent her home by air ambulance at no extra charge. That’s more than you get in the US – way more!

So, a word of caution if you wear a harness and are considering a flight in the near future. Just wear a long sleeved shirt over it, so nobody can see it. Those planes get chilly anyway, so the cover-up will serve a dual purpose. After all, if they can’t see the harness, they can’t very tell you that you can’t wear it.

Sometimes it’s all in the perception.