Cancer Patient Denied Boarding — Could it Happen to You?

Elizabeth Sedway was having a nice family vacation in Hawaii — that is until she attempted to board her Alaska Airlines flight home to California.

You see, Sedway has multiple myeloma, and like many other people who have compromised immune systems, she wears a surgical mask in crowded public places, like airports. She also opted to preboard the flight, and according to her recollection of the incident, she told the gate agent that she felt “weak”. Both of these actions are perfectly normal under the circumstances, but they also set off a chain of events that eventually got the Sedway family unceremoniously booted from their flight.

So what happened? Is it actually legal for Alaska Airlines to deny boarding to a cancer patient? And more important, what can you do to prevent this from happening to you?

First let’s look at the law — in this case the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA). Under the ACAA. airlines can require a doctor’s letter from passengers who travel in an incubator or on a stretcher, as well as passengers who require medical oxygen during the flight. They can also require medical certification from passengers with certain communicable diseases that could pose a direct threat to the health or safety of the flight.

They can also require a doctor’s letter from passengers who they believe cannot complete the flight safely, without requiring extraordinary medical assistance. I expect that was the concern of Alaska Airlines employees when they saw Sedway in the departure lounge. Combine surgical mask with her comments about “feeling weak” and the red flags went off.

So what did they do? They contacted MedLink for expert medical advice. MedLink is a company staffed by board certified physicians that acts as a consultant to the airlines on medical matters. They are typically called when a passenger wants to fly with oxygen — for assessment and for making the oxygen arrangements. They are also called when there is an in-flight emergency. And if the gate agent or flight crew suspects an individual is too ill or infirmed to make the trip, they contact MedLink for an assessment.

Of course MedLink just acts in an advisory capacity. The final call is with the airline. And in this case, Alaska Airlines felt that since the five-hour flight was over open water, then there was just too much of a risk.

Of course this all could have been handled in a more professional way, and Alaska Airlines admits that. They didn’t say they were wrong, but they did say that there “was a communication breakdown on our part” and they admitted that the situation could have been handled better. They also said they would refund the Sedway’s airfare and cover any expenses incurred by the family as a result of the denied boarding.

So what should you do if you find yourself in a similar situation? First and foremost, be proactive. If you are traveling for cancer treatment, or merely celebrating the completion of a round of chemotherapy, get a letter from your doctor stating that you are fit to fly. And make sure that the letter is dated within 10 days of your original flight. I know you shouldn’t have to do this, but it may save you some heartache in the long run.

Then if — and only if — your medical fitness is questioned, present the letter to the airline.

And if that doesn’t work, ask to speak to the Complaints Resolution Official (CRO). Under the ACAA, the airlines are required to have a CRO on duty while the airport is open. If the employee you are talking to does not know what a CRO is, ask to speak to a supervisor, as they are intimately familiar with the workings and duties of the CRO. In any case, this airline employee is educated in the ACAA and trained to solve disability-related issues such as this.

I know this is an extra burden on a population that has already been overburdened, but in this case a little advance planning and preparation may help things go smoother in the friendly skies.

And if you don’t need the letter and nobody even bats an eye when you show up in the departure lounge, then more power to you. Just think of the doctor’s letter as your own little insurance policy.