Escalating the Situation at 30,000 Feet

aircraft-airplane-flying-2105If autism is on your radar, you are now aware of the recent forced deplaning of a family of a girl with autism by a United Airlines flight crew.

From the reports I have heard, including the mother’s own statements, it didn’t need to go down like that.  The way it was handled increased the stigma of those on the spectrum, and created fear where there wasn’t any previously.

I think Mom, already in high-anxiety-panic mode, and trying to avert a meltdown tried to get some help, and used a poorly phrased warning to encourage the unhelpful and apparently untrained flight staff to be proactive. Unfortunately, it may have sounded like a threat, and anyone who flies with any regularity knows that any possible threats are “handled” immediately, with questions only asked after the fact.

And let’s not even go there about her being unprepared. Autism moms are not machines, and there are times when we are caught unawares by our kiddos. It seems that she did the best she could with what she had at hand. And asked for some warmed up rice.

I think the flight staff who is trained in how to de-escalate situations utterly failed in this instance. Maybe Mom came off as “that” mom, the demanding one, and they responded with what many of us in the service industry do when customers start to get snippy and demanding. We slip into, “I’m sorry. That’s our policy,” because we can, and we take a secret glee in being unable to help someone who is so clearly trying to abuse the system.  But they failed to recognize that this was not an unhappy and demanding customer, this was a mom making a plea for the sake of her daughter and the comfort of the other passengers.  They failed to listen when she said her daughter was autistic.  They failed to do their jobs and do what they could to diffuse the situation.

They brought her the rice and probably immediately went to the captain, reporting a threatening passenger because they could, and because that would teach her to be demanding and make threats on a plane.

And the captain, trusting his staff, made the call.

But even he failed to do his job and investigate any further before making that call.

The flight staff failed all of their customers. They failed to listen, they failed to be compassionate human beings, they failed to diffuse the situation.  But more than that, they violated this young person’s rights.

So my personal take is that yes, this flight crew needs training about passengers with special needs, as well as training in disability rights.  (Many flight crews do – I can tell you stories about the many, many flights I’ve taken with The Boy by myself.)  But they also need to go back to square one and be retrained about their primary job in that airplane – de-escalating any potential situation.


3 thoughts on “Escalating the Situation at 30,000 Feet

  1. United Airlines did not remove the child from the plan because she was autistic – the family was removed because her mom made a threat, mid-air.

    “Give my kid in coach a first-class hot meal (that isn’t for sale) or she is liable to physically assault somebody”.

    That. Is. A. Threat.

    A near-adult-sized 15 yo is plenty big enough to harm other passengers by hitting/scratching them.

    Yes. Yes. It. Is.

    (Mom is an educated woman, a doctor. Surely she’s capable of requesting accommodations to which her daughter is entitled under the ADA in a non-threatening manner).

    The airline staff reacted to a threat and the pilot took appropriate action – the emergency landing. “Investigating” threats in a tiny little metal tubes 35,000 ft in the air is not a viable option.
    It’s also helpful to note that the mom is an experience traveler, having taken her daughter on 22 flights – and therefore is fully aware that food isn’t always available on planes and that first-class hot food isn’t available to folks in coach. Even if they OFFER to pay for it.

    The mom knew her kid was a picky eater and would not eat room temperature food – putting a few pre-packaged dry individual servings of “cup o ramen noodles” or “easy mac n cheese” in her carry on bag and asking the steward/ess for hot water in flight would have avoided this problem completely.

    99 cents + 2 min at any convenience store* = avoiding this problem

    Let’s not forget there are:
    1. 100k domestic flights per day
    2. Less than 300 emergency landing per YEAR on domestic flights
    3. 1 in 68 American kids are autistic
    4. Taken together, this suggests that tons of autistic kids fly, their parents/guardians refrain from making mid-air threats to airline staff when in need of assistance and, FINALLY, that it’s clearly possible to teach an autistic child to behave in a non-feral manner. Since folks do it All. The. Time!

    *Including the ones inside airline terminals!

    • And if you read what I wrote, I did acknowledge that her request came off as a threat, and that threats do not result in good things on airlines. My point was that the staff has an opportunity to deal with customers as people, or not. They chose not to, and chose to escalate the situation when it wasn’t necessary. The girl was calm after eating the rice, and no one had been disturbed besides the flight attendants. In the future, I would request that you not make derogatory remarks about kiddos on the spectrum. Meltdowns occur as a method of communication, not the behavior of “feral” children who just need to be taught better. If you cannot keep your comments civil, your comments will not be approved.

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