United Airlines Forced My Disabled 94yo Grandma Out of Business Class Seat
During boarding of a United flight from Los Angeles to Melbourne on February 2, 2017, the Business Class flight attendant rolled her eyes at my grandma and introduced herself to all the cabin passengers except for her. It was a telltale sign of my grandma’s nightmare flight.
I vividly remember getting a call from my younger sister. She said grandma arrived in Melbourne but she spent the entire flight in Economy. That’s impossible! I drove them to LAX airport and I was there when they checked in for the flight. I saw her boarding pass for a Business Class seat. My sister repeated it. I burst into tears and was sobbing so hard thinking about my frail grandma sitting up during the entire 16-hour flight.
It was a HUGE deal for my grandma to be in Business Class. Not because we are fancy, but my grandma spends most of the day lying down. She has a degenerative bone structure in her neck and severe arthritis so sitting up for extended periods gives her severe pain. When she told us she wanted to fly here for a family reunion, Business Class was the only viable option since she can fully recline to alleviate the neck pain. Twelve (12) grandkids pitched in to buy her $3,596.24 Business Class ticket.
We had a scare back in 2015 when she had a stroke and the family thought she only had a short time to live. In May of that year, I booked a last-minute ticket to Australia with my then 16-month old baby. I was scared to fly alone with him because it would be hard for him to sit still during the long flight and he weighed more than 30 lbs. — that’s a lot of weight on my lap! But I wanted him to meet his great grandma and at under 2 years old, his fare was still free. I would have preferred for my husband and my older son to come with us too but we couldn’t afford to fly the whole family on such short notice. Other relatives who could afford it flew there to visit her too. We staggered our visits so grandma had a visitor to look forward to. With each visit, grandma got stronger, most especially after seeing great grandkids. A year later, she told my aunt that she wanted to go to the US to see everyone. There are about 40+ of her immediate family in the US, not including extended families from her sister’s side. The doctor informed us she was strong enough and cleared her to travel. The entire Orquiza family was ecstatic. Her last visit to the US was almost 15 years ago when we celebrated her 80th birthday. In June 2016, we booked her ticket for December and everyone cleared their calendars. It was going to be the best holiday ever and we immediately started making plans. We wanted to ensure her comfort during her travel and stay here.
Where can we get her a special bed? Whose house has a room on the first floor? Who will host the Xmas Eve, Xmas, NYE, NY family parties as well as an early 95th birthday party? Who has her favorite TFC channel?
My grandma arrived on December 5, 2017. She traveled with her youngest daughter named Rose Benedicto (my aunt) and one of her grandkids, both seated in Economy. Grandma was able to sleep and was very comfortable in Business Class. The flight attendants made every effort to accommodate my aunt’s request to assist grandma on occasion.
However, grandma’s experience on United Airlines Flight 98 from Los Angeles to Melbourne on February 2, 2017 was not just disappointing in contrast, it was a nightmare.
The below is written from Rose Benedicto’s (my aunt) point of view:
Aboard the plane, my mother asked me if I could assist her to walk to the restroom. On my mother’s way out of the restroom, a Business Class flight attendant named Shauna rolled her eyes at the both of us. After I seated my mother, I asked Shauna if I could assist my mother during the flight with vital tasks she cannot physically do alone, such as walking her to the bathroom, opening food containers so she can eat, and reclining her chair. She can eat and use the bathroom on her own, but requires some assistance, similar to her flight from Melbourne to Los Angeles. Shauna answered in an unfriendly tone of voice, “People pay to be in Business Class. I’ll see what I can do.” She then proceeded to introduce herself to everyone in Business Class except for my mother. After a few minutes, Shauna and another crew member told me that they could not accommodate my request. She said that they could move my mother next to me in Economy and I could claim a refund. They asked if I paid my mother’s ticket or used points for her ticket, a question that I found irrelevant. With the hope that my mother could stay in Business Class, I asked Shauna if she can help my mother open her butter because aside from fruits, bread with butter is most likely the only food she will eat during this flight due to her age. Without a word, Shauna abruptly turned her back on me. She and another crew member came back after a few minutes and gave me two options: 1) Have my mother sit in Economy with me; 2) Get off the flight and reschedule for tomorrow so I could purchase a Business Class ticket for myself and sit with her. They also mentioned we had 5 minutes before take-off.
I was shocked, threatened and anxious. I had to make a quick decision given two unfair options. During the short period of time, several concerns came to mind. If no one helps my mother open her food containers, she would starve during the 16-hour flight. If no one assists her to walk to the restroom, she may have an accident or a bladder infection. If no one reclines her chair, she would not be able to sleep.
All of these concerns defeated the purpose of paying thousands of dollars to be comfortable in Business Class. With a heavy heart, I told my mother I would not be able to assist her, so she agreed to sit in Economy with me. When I told Shauna, the other crew member rudely told the passenger sitting next to my daughter to get up from his seat and move to Business Class so my mother could sit next to me. The passenger protested not to be moved but the crew member insisted. My family and the passenger next to me felt like kids, vs valued and paying customers, being scolded by these crew members. My mother was publicly humiliated and embarrassed as they moved her from Business Class to Economy.
My mother spent the next 16 hours in severe emotional distress and physical pain caused by the grossly negligent crew members’ conduct and United. I also felt stressed and angry during the entire flight and felt helpless in trying to comfort my mother. She was in tears because of her discomfort. We tried different ways to try to make her comfortable. I placed a carry-on bag under her feet to elevate them. I asked the Economy flight attendant named Rene for more pillows and blankets but only extra blankets were available. In the middle of the flight, I held her legs and feet on my lap to help with the discomfort. Looking at my mother in tears broke my heart. I told Rene that I was extremely upset with the options given to us. However, as much as we tried to make my mother comfortable in Economy, it was not enough for a 94-year old frail woman with disability traveling for 16 hours.
Upon arrival in Australia, my mother’s legs had swollen due to poor circulation from a prolonged seated position, she suffered from a stiff neck, and her whole body ached. She was in great emotional distress and physical pain from this ordeal. She sought medical attention on February 5th. The doctor prescribed her stronger pain medication and Valium to help with sleep.
We were discriminated against because of my mother’s age and disability. I have worked with people with disabilities for 27 years and it disappointed me that Shauna showed no professionalism or compassion for my mother.
Shauna displayed unprofessional and reckless behavior from the beginning of the flight and the options given to us were unfair and unreasonable. And no one cared to, or was able to, properly address the issues at the time. This should not have happened to anyone, let alone someone who has a disability or is elderly, and has rightfully paid $3,596.24 USD for a Business Class ticket. There is no place for discrimination at any company, let alone an international airline carrier, such as United Airlines.
I was told by another passenger that my mother’s seat was given to someone willing to pay for an upgraded seat.
The Air Carrier Access Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in air travel and requires air carriers to accommodate the needs of passengers with disabilities, neither of which was complied with here.
My aunt filed an online complaint with United. We also emailed our complaint to Oscar Munoz, United’s CEO, as well as some other executives.
Two weeks later, United CRO department responded that after conducting an investigation:
“Our crew’s recall of the events differs somewhat from Mrs. Benedicto’s report”
“I did not find any evidence that any disability regulations were broken in this instance, because we are not required to provide extensive personal assistance”
“I have asked our Refund Department to review Mrs. Orquiza’s ticket for a fare adjustment to reflect the cabin change and process the appropriate refund”
“As a gesture of goodwill I am sending Mrs. Orquiza an Electronic Travel Certificate to use toward a future United ticket purchase”
So basically United’s response was a NON-APOLOGY apology, they called my family a liar, gave us a pointless $500 certificate because our family will never fly United, and the partial refund is still under review.
What do they mean we asked for extensive personal assistance? So I went to the “Special Travel Needs” section on United’s website and it says:
“Flight attendants will offer assistance to semi-ambulatory customers in getting to/from the seat during boarding and/or disembarkation and to/from the onboard lavatory. They may assist with loading and retrieving carry-on items and other assistive devices stowed on board the aircraft. They will also assist with meal preparation such as opening packages and identifying items.”
The services we requested were listed here except reclining seats. So they don’t want to recline her seat? I have reclined seats for a couple passengers in the past because they couldn’t figure it out. They also adjust it for passengers who have fallen asleep during landing and takeoff. It seems ridiculous that they thought her needs were extensive. As a passenger, if I was sitting next to a stranger on the flight and they requested my assistance in walking to/from lavatory, opening food packaging or reclining seat, I would gladly oblige. Why? Because I was raised to help those in need and most especially respect the elderly.
Were we required to give advance notice before her flight? When we booked her ticket, the travel agency made a note of her wheelchair needs. According to United’s website, they require 48-hour notice if a disabled passenger requires onboard medical oxygen, special machine needs, etc. — none of which applies to my grandma.
We also checked to see if she even required a travel companion. On United’s website, it lists the limitations of a disabled customer who would require a safety assistant. My grandma did NOT have any of those limitations and could have traveled alone. MIND-BLOWING. What if she traveled alone? How scary! What would United have done to help her then?
According to the US Department of Transportation (DOT), “airlines may not require a person with a disability to travel with another person, except in certain limited circumstances where the rule permits the airline to require a safety assistant. If a passenger with a disability and the airline disagree about the need for a safety assistant, the airline can require the assistant, but cannot charge for the transportation of the assistant.”
Since I drove them to the airport, I was there with my aunt when they checked in at the Business Class counter. My aunt asked the United employee if she can be seated on the first row of Economy so she can help my grandma with simple tasks and mentioned “she cannot open the butter to spread on the bread”. The employee told her that the flight was full and to let the staff at the gate know and they may be able to help her. Why would she let them check in at all if there were required to sit together knowing my grandma’s needs? My aunt was allowed to help my grandma on the outbound flight but not on the return? They refused to let her and yet they wouldn’t help her themselves? According to their website, they should be able to help her with her needs but they didn’t? Also that she didn’t need a safety assistant to travel with her? There are so many holes in their procedures when dealing with disabled passengers! And most of all, forget their rules and procedures for one moment and think — where is humanity and compassion towards a person with a disability?
On March 1, 2017, feeling helpless against this big corporation, I posted on Facebook to share our story with the public and to raise awareness regarding rights of disabled passengers when flying. Within a week or so, my post had several hundred shares. A couple of news stations interviewed us and aired my grandma’s story. Several Filipino news websites published it. During the FOX news segment, the reporter said that according to United, they already gave us a refund. Another lie, United?
United CRO department (Susan) called my younger sister a few days later because the social media department reached out to them. Susan said that the crew couldn’t provide extensive care like feeding my grandma. My sister told her that grandma can eat by herself and my aunt didn’t ask the crew to feed her. My sister expressed the family’s frustration that if the crew had taken the time to listen and understand my grandma’s needs, this could have been prevented. But as a result of their negligence, my grandma endured a lot of pain. Susan agreed with my sister that the crew could have handled the situation differently.
We also filed a complaint with the Department of Transportation (DOT). They will investigate but it could take some time as they receive hundreds of complaints each year.
On March 10, 2017, we contacted United again. We requested they do a deeper dive investigation into this matter. They responded with “At this time we have completed our investigation.”
On April 12, 2017, three days after United’s incident with Dr. Dao (timing is suspect), they emailed to say the refund of AUD1149.75 (equivalent to roughly $860 USD) has been processed back to the travel agency but we should wait 2 more weeks to contact the agency regarding this refund. I don’t know how they came up with this amount because her ticket cost $3,596.24.
Some people claim our story is fake because all these horrible stories are coming out of the woodwork due to latest United controversy involving Dr. Dao which happened on April 9, 2017, over a month after my grandma’s incident. As much as I’d like to say this never happened to my grandma, it is REAL. If I could turn back time and not have her go through that experience, I would do it in a heartbeat. As I mentioned before, I posted this story on my Facebook page on March 1, 2017 after getting a non-apology apology from United. A couple of news channels aired our story and several Filipino news websites published it. We asked United for a re-investigation but they had closed our case. When I told some people United won’t commit to any wrongdoing, they told me karma will get them and I agreed. Now I feel like we are getting a second chance to find justice for my grandma — thanks to Dr. Dao. Asians are generally submissive and non-confrontational. I, myself, am guilty of this. I hope we learn from Dr. Dao to voice our opinions and stand up for what we think is right. But if I think about what could have happened if my aunt refused to move my grandma to Economy. Would they have dragged her and my grandma out like animals? It sounds inhumane but they did it to a 69-year old man! Even though my aunt agreed to move my grandma, they didn’t come out of the situation pain-free. Not a visible bloody face like Dr. Dao, but my grandma was in severe pain during the flight and for the next week or so after arrival in Melbourne. Both my grandma and aunt were in great emotional distress and this horrible incident is ingrained in their memories.
What does my family want? We request a full refund of my grandma’s ticket and a formal apology from United. More importantly, we want United to review and change their policies and procedures when dealing with persons with disabilities, and discipline and train the employees involved in this incident.
Humanity, compassion and professionalism are lacking with this airline, who only obviously cares about their bottom line. It is extremely difficult to fight a big corporation. But we can do our share by boycotting them. Never fly United. MY BOTTOM LINE: as humans, we should not give this disreputable company our business.
How is my grandma now? She is doing well physically. She just turned 95 years old last February 28th. However, as I mentioned earlier, I think she will always harbor negative emotions about this incident.
I dedicate this story to my grandma, the woman who devoted her life to her family. She raised her nine children as well as most of her grandchildren, myself included. She taught us that family is everything.
“I love you, Nanay!”