As if flying isn't stressful enough...

Many of you have probably seen this story flying around the news - the one about the boy with Down Syndrome who wasn't allowed on an American Airlines flight because "the pilot" thought the boy was a security concern. First of all, how many people have EVER had a pilot standing out at your ticketing gate when you've boarded a flight? Sounds fishy right off the bat. After reading up on the story from several different sources (one of them, a blog I've followed for a while: Noah's Dad) I was reminded of a frustrating travel experience we had a few years ago while flying with Peyton.

So here in Minnesota there's this thing called "spring break" that usually falls in March or April where schools shut down for a week and a lot of families take vacations to escape winter. Most of you are probably thinking, seriously Aimee, we know what spring break is. Well I grew up in Wisconsin and had NO CLUE what spring break was because we never had it. So just wanted to make sure everyone understood the concept. :) Back to my story...spring break - a few years back we were on our way to visit Chad's parents who winter in Ft. Myers, Florida. Peyton was 4 (almost 5) and Carson had just turned 3, and this was probably their 3rd or 4th time flying. They'd always done great so we weren't worried at all. We had all our goodie bags, books, DVD players...we were set. We'd even gone so far as to pay for pre-assigned seats so we didn't have to mess around with that. We parked at the airport and made our way through security and to our gate with plenty of time to spare. While we waited to board we were called to the counter by an agent saying they'd overbooked the flight and that they weren't able to seat us all together. My first thought was, well, if I have to sit alone with the kids - oh well. The agent prints up our new boarding passes and hands them to Chad. Chad looks at them and they're 4 individual seats, each several rows where NEAR each other. We politely told him that there was no way this would work as we had a 3 year old as well as a 4 year old with special needs. The ticket agent acted annoyed and went back to the computer to search some more. He finally told us he could seat me and one child together, then we could get another seat 8 rows back and another 12 rows back. WHAT? So we again told him that wouldn't work - and he could clearly see our two kids standing there with us. Chad again stated our situation, reminding him that we were flying with a 4 year old with special needs who could not sit alone, as well as a 3 year old. The agent looks at Chad, then at Peyton (who I realize probably looked like she was at least 7 or 8...she's always been big for her age), then back at Chad, rolls his eyes and says in a very condescending irritated voice, "Well sir, we ALL have special needs...". I kid you not, Chad almost went over the counter at the guy and raised his voice to let him know that he had just said THE WRONG thing to THE WRONG PERSON. I whisked the kids away as the situation escalated, but as I walked away I heard a man in line behind Chad who had witnessed the entire incident say to the ticket agent, "You can't say that to him - what on earth are you thinking?!". The agent acted as if Chad was in the wrong for yelling at him after he'd made such a rude comment, which only made matters worse. By this time everyone in the vicinity of our gate had turned to see what all the excitement was about. The agent kept on insisting there was nothing he could do unless Peyton needed assistance due to a physical disability (i.e. a handicap-accessible seat). As I stood off to the side and watched this all unfolding, I couldn't help but feel so incredibly embarrassed and sick about it all. I was holding back tears as Chad continued to try to get it through the gate agent's thick skull that our special needs 4 year old couldn't sit unassisted on a 3.5 hour flight.

Those who know me know that it takes a lot to make me cry. Granted, I've become more of a "softie" since I've had kids, but still...Chad often ever so lovingly refers to me as having a "heart of stone" because I don't weep during sappy movies (or Extreme Makeover: Home Edition - ahem, Chad). But I couldn't hold back the tears. I was angry, embarrassed, hurt, and most of all, I was furious with the lack of understanding and empathy this ticket agent had. I feel like we've worked really hard not to be "that family" who uses their child's disability to their advantage. We'd made arrangements ahead of time (pre-selecting and PAYING FOR assigned seats) to make sure we didn't run in to any issues or wouldn't need to make extra work for anyone. And here we were. My husband was having a screaming match with an ignorant ticket agent while I stood crying about 50 feet away, trying to entertain the kids. Fantastic.

Well, after watching Chad go back and forth with the ticket agent for about 10 minutes, I finally walked over and told Chad it wasn't worth him getting kicked off the flight or even worse, taken away by security for being so worked up. Needless to say, Chad was LIVID...and so was I. We took the kids to the farthest part of the seating area at our gate and tried to regroup. Then the most incredible thing happened...we were absolutely FLOODED with people surrounding us offering to give up their seats so we could sit together with our kids. They'd all witnessed the frustrating turn of events and were shocked at how the situation had been handled (or NOT handled, in my opinion). When we boarded the plane we explained our situation to the flight attendants and they just kept telling us, "We can't do anything about it - please take your seats and we'll announce over the intercom that there are people looking to switch seats". I stood there staring at the one lady thinking to myself, "Seriously, you DO NOT get it. If I try to make my 3 year old sit by a stranger it's going to be a disaster, and it'll be even worse if I tell my 4 year old with special needs that she has to sit with Joe Schmoe on the plane - I don't care if it's just for 5 minutes until you find volunteers to give up their seats".  Several wonderful people instantly stood up and offered their seats to us, which made me want to burst in to tears again. After all that, I plopped down in row 10 with a child on either side of me while Chad made his way back to row 36 to find his seat. As everyone else boarded and walked past me and the kids, I had so many of them give me warm smiles and pat Carson on the head as they walked by....I even had one lady stop to give me a hug. I must have looked totally stressed out. Just before we were about to take off, I felt a tap on my shoulder from an older gentleman sitting in the aisle seat behind me. I turned around and he asked, "Are you the lady who the ticket guy was being a jerk to?". I told him unfortunately, yes. He then asked where Chad was. I told him he'd been given a seat in the back of the plane. This sweet man unbuckled his seat belt, stood up and went to find a flight attendant. He came back and said, "Your husband needs to be sitting with his family - I'd love to switch with him". Gosh, there came those pesky tears again. I can't even tell you how refreshing it was to have complete strangers "get it".  We weren't asking for the moon - we were simply wanting to go on vacation and have the ability to be with & assist our kids without inconveniencing anyone else on the flight. It's not like parents of special needs kids don't already stress out enough about public outings - why on earth can't people try to understand that?

Last night I saw on my super awesome sister-in-law's Facebook wall that her and her family had been interviewed about the American Airlines story because they're parents to the even more super awesome Hope who has Down Syndrome. The clip was short but sweet and I loved what both Therese & Ted had to say...most of all, I loved Hopie's smile!!  Here's the clip:

Minneapolis News and Weather KMSP FOX 9

The moral of this story...make it a point to try and not only use your brain, but also your heart as you choose how to respond to others in situations that may not be ideal. Not everyone's disability is obvious upon first glance. Try to be graceful in your interactions with others because you just never know what battles they've been fighting or what their situation is. As my brother-in-law Ted said in the video, "Everyone has something to offer...". Amen!


Katie said...

I never heard this story!! What a terrible situation that totally turned around!

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