Here’s a tough story that requires our compassion but at the same time some discernment. Just what was United Airlines supposed to do when an autistic teenager had a meltdown on a flight from Aruba to Newark?
Family Upset After United Airlines Removes Autistic Teenager From Aruba Flight
The incident occurred on May 17, 2022. A family of five was boarding a United Airlines flight from Aruba (AUA) to Newark (EWR). 15-year-old Elijah, who has autism, had a “sensory episode” while boarding. He stopped at the aircraft and door and screamed “toilet.” His mother told NJ.com:
“I gave him gentle nudge and we made it to our seats, then he lost control. He refused to sit, and Jamie and I had to hold him down. Something caused him to be overwhelmed, and he began to hit Jamie and me and continued screaming.”
Flight attendants asked the family, citing the determination of the captain, to exit the aircraft. The family complied, but also gave Elijah medication prescribed by their doctor for use if he became agitated.
The medicine did not work: there was no change in his behavior.
The family determined that Elijah could not go back on this flight or any other flight, fearing it would trigger another episode. They reached out to a medical evacuation company, which refused to help. Eventually, three of the five family members returned to New Jersey (the kids had to get back to school), leaving behind Elijah and his mother.
Days later, an employee at Carnival Cruise Line stumbled upon the family’s plight, which they posted about on Facebook, and reached out. In cooperation with KultureCity, a non-profit organization that promotes inclusion and acceptance for those with invisible disabilities, Carnival arranged for a ship enroute to Miami to divert to Aruba to pick up Elijah and his mother.
From Miami, the two drove north to New Jersey.
Happy ending, right? But the family is not happy. Elijah’s mother lamented:
“Policies have to change. I understand that airlines must follow safety protocols, but something like this should have never happened.
“Airlines should treat invisible disabilities the same way they treat visible disabilities. Invisible disabilities include autism, PTSD, traumatic brain injury, anxiety, ADHD, strokes and other mental health challenges.”
She wished United would have presented an alternate plan to return them home rather than leaving them to fend for themselves.
But what was United supposed to do? The family very clearly recognized that Elijah could not fly. It’s not like United or any other carrier banned them. Perhaps United could have offered to let the family try again the next day, but the screaming and thrashing and hitting becomes a safety risk not only to the family but to others onboard. Furthermore, it was the family who determined Elijah could not fly.
As delicate as this situation is, I think asking United to arrange alternate transportation is a bit much. What policies have to change? Whether invisible or visible, United or any airline is not going to transport a passenger who is uncontrollably screaming or hitting others. We should be thankful for that.
After a teenager had an autistic incident onboard a United flight from Aruba to Newark, the teen and his mother were forced to find a different way back to New York. Carnival Cruise Line came through, transporting the two safety back to Florida. But the family somehow thinks United could have done more: I’m just not sure what that is, beyond displaying empathy for what was a very difficult situation.
image: United Airlines