Autistic Passenger’s Family Claims Delta, SkyWest Discriminated Against Them

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Image of Delta Connection Bombardier CL-600 with registration N823SK shown approaching the Los Angeles International Airport, LAX.

(©iStock.com/Angel Di Bilio)

A family traveling with a member who has autism spectrum disorder claims they were discriminated against before a Delta Connection flight operated by SkyWest Airlines.

Ayo Isola wrote on Facebook that his family returned to the US from a European trip last Friday. In their group was his brother who has autism spectrum disorder. “He is essentially nonverbal,” he explained, “making him unable to express himself oftentimes. He suffers from OCD, sensory overload, and many other symptoms that can make air travel particularly difficult for him. For his safety and the safety of those around him, it is important that he sit with a family member on flights.”

Prior to boarding their flight — SkyWest 3596 — from Detroit to Houston Intercontinental, they realized none of them had seats together.

A woman seated in an adjacent row was willing to switch seats so two Isola family members could sit together.

This, for some reason, irked a flight attendant, who allegedly demanded Mr. Isola’s brother move back to his original seat. “We explained to her that he has special needs and that this small accommodation would be necessary,” he said, “however she continued to raise hell about passengers switching seats.” Fellow passengers came to the Isola party’s defense.

Twenty minutes later, a supervisor boarded the plane and instructed the flight attendant to allow the seat swap. The supervisor explained to the FA that seat swaps aren’t uncommon on flights.

Oh, boy. If the flight attendant didn’t know — or want to admit — that, there’s no way this story ends happily.

And it sort of doesn’t.

The flight was now 45 minutes late. The flight attendant gets the pilots involved and purportedly claims the family is causing “a safety hazard.” One of the pilots decides everyone must deplane. That didn’t sit well with many people — including “airline management and airport security (who) got involved and told the pilot that there was no safety issue and that the plane should fly now.”

Mr. Isola said the pilot (I assume he’s referencing the captain) refused to operate the flight and then left the terminal, his crew following behind.

A new crew was needed to operate the flight, which departed about two and a half hours late.

“They refused to fly the plane because they were told to make a minor accommodation for a passenger with special needs. Im [sic] posting this story to highlight the ignorance, bigotry, and blatant discrimination that unfortunately exists in people today. It is not right to treat people with special needs as if they are unworthy of your time or effort.”

So What Was the “Safety Hazard”?

There are only two “safety” related concerns that cross my mind. (Again, I don’t know anything more than what Mr. Isola wrote.)

  1. Did the young man with autism end up in an exit row? If travel is challenging for him, helping out in the event of an emergency could be a concern. But if that were the case — and I don’t know where anyone was seated — it’d be pretty darn easy to find volunteers to go from standard coach seats to the exit row.
  2. Was the young man was (understandably) upset? That may have made the flight attendant uncomfortable.

The only other thing I can think of is if people moved cabins (i.e. First to Main or Comfort+ to Main Cabin, or some combination thereof)

What Does Delta Say?

So far, we haven’t seen any formal statement from Delta. Ironically (or maybe not) Delta released “Travel tips for customers with disabilities” this morning. The release included tips for those traveling with sensory sensitivities.

Yes, I know the flight was operated by SkyWest. But because this was a Delta Connection flight, the mothership must bear some responsibility here, too. Just like United has to face the music with that whole drunk-Air-Wisconsin-flight-attendant incident.

What Do You Think?

Please share your thoughts in the Comments section below?

H/T: Marni Rachmiel via Facebook

10 comments

  1. The family could have done a lot to prevent this mess from ever happening, including pre selecting their seats and then telling the reservations that it was necessary for them to sit together. Having failed to do this, Skywest could have asked for volunteers to switch but barring this, the family must take responsibility. The safety issue that the FA’s raised was probably that the family and other “Fellow passengers” argued with the FA’s., and the F.A. Felt threatened.

  2. @Steve That’s a lot of assumptions you’ve postulated. The article doesn’t mention whether or not the family brought this up with the airline pre-flight, nor does it mention the circumstances by which the family came to have scattered seating (on a connecting flight after a trans-Atlantic leg). Since we don’t have all of the details… let’s just blame the family… It would be just as bad if I put forth the idea that the FA has control issues and that she was on a power trip…

  3. I’m trying to figure out why Delta has any responsibility in this situation. Did they fail to book all the seats together when the reservation was made and the “special needs” was raised? Didn’t the flight supervisor and flight operations back the family up? How does Delta have control over the flight attendant and crew who work for SW (other than bar them from working for Delta)? In other words, what could Delta have done up front to mitigate the situation?
    On the other hand, if I was SW management, I’d want a detailed review of the whole incident. Aside from pissing off customers on the flight, it caused a flight delay and required a new crew. I’d like to hear about that outcome!

  4. @DT: Agree with you on pretty much everything. Because it was a Delta-marketed flight and the plane was painted in the Delta Connection livery, it’s my hope Delta doesn’t wuss out and shift all the blame to SkyWest.

  5. Whole bunch of flight crew who walked off should be fired. The passengers weren’t complaining. It’s just discrimination

  6. When anyone claims discrimination I assume they are lying or exaggerating until proven otherwise or feel the discrimination is warranted. Of course we should discriminate in all areas of our lives. I’m not going swimming in a beach with recent shark sightings. I’m not walking down a street with a lot of people from groups who are known based on 50 years of data, statistics and 30 years of observation to commit a disproportionate amount of violent crime.

  7. Thank goodness the pilot decided to de-board the plane. I commend his quick thinking and commitment to safety. If the flight attendant was making such bigoted and irrational decisions on the ground, can you imagine what could have transpired if she continued to escalate the situation in the air?

  8. The truth of the matter is we don’t know what really happened. In my honest opinion the events characterized here is a very one sided view. Everyone in this situation should have their side of the story heard. However, as always we become critics and the jury awards comes back with a public conviction.

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