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These Parents Are Angry That American Airlines Wouldn't Let Their 5-Year-Old Boy with Autism Board a Flight

Absurdly Driven looks at the world of business with a skeptical eye and a firmly rooted tongue in cheek. 

The disappointment was crushing. Especially after the preparation. 

Adam and Heather Halkuff have five children, two of whom have autism. 

They wanted to take the whole family on a trip to Kansas City. So the Texas family did all they could to make it happen.

As NBC 5 reports, they called American Airlines in advance. The airline has a program that helps kids, including those with autism, become familiar with all the trials and quirks of flying. 

Five-year-old Milo and two-year-old Ollie took part, on September 24, more than a week before their flight. 

Yet on the day of the flight, Milo became distressed — many call it a meltdown — during the boarding process at Dallas/Fort Worth airport.

A meltdown might involve screaming, crying and other expressions of feeling overwhelmed.

The Halkuffs say other passengers were kind, but an American Airlines gate agent was less so.

“Right away she goes, ‘He can’t get on the flight … he’s going to bother the other passengers and then he’ll still be upset during the flight and we’ll have to turn around and escort you off the plane,” Heather Halkuff told NBC.

Some might observe that they’ve seen all sorts of kids get on planes and express upset.

Sometimes, they calm down quickly. Surely everyone has at least once been on a flight when a child didn’t quieten at all. 

At times, ground crew and Flight Attendants can be sympathetic. At other times, not so much.

The Halkuffs depiction of this particular gate agent suggests that she was of the latter variety.

Worse, Heather Halkuff says that the whole family weren’t allowed to board. Even though Adam Halkuff offered to take Milo home, so that at least Heather and the other children could still take the trip.

I contacted American for its view and a spokesperson told me:  

We are concerned to hear about this situation. Our team has reached out to the Halkuff family to gather more information about what transpired at Dallas/Fort Worth. The American Airlines team is committed to providing a safe and pleasant travel experience for all of our customers.

Clearly, the fact that American provides a service to help children — including those with autism — get used to flying means that the airline isn’t insensitive to the potential issues.

Moreover, we have no idea of the level of distress Milo might have undergone.

Yet again, though, we’re in a customer service situation when individuals are involved and initial reactions matter.

If the Halkuffs’ story is accurate, then some might conjecture the gate agent reacted too quickly. 

There could, perhaps, have been an alternative solution. Could anyone really know if Milo might have calmed down, once on the plane?

Not allowing any of the family to fly, however, seems to be the sort of draconian decision still too often taken by airline staff. 

I recently wrote about a dad who says he called American to explain that his three-year-old had a burst appendix and please could the airline rebook their trip.

American, he says, insisted on still charging $200 change fees for both of them. Before, says dad, the decision gained some Twitter traction.

Then the airline made a “one time exception.”

When it comes to boarding passengers, airline employees are graded severely on so-called D0.

This is the measure of whether a plane departs at the very minute and second it’s supposed to.

It could be that thoughts of this may have played upon this particular gate agent’s mind.

Yet as long as customers still see airlines as being in the customer service business — perhaps erroneously — such stories are likely to reach the media and become examples of airline insensitivity.

Airlines employ enormous numbers of people and are therefore at the mercy of each of their employees’ behavior.

The Halkuffs hope that what happened doesn’t cause Milo’s older brothers to resent him.

Perhaps there’s some way that American might provide another attempt for Milo to fly with his family.

Indeed, American told me:

A few members of the American team have been in touch with the family, and yes, we are hopeful they will reschedule and try once again.

Maria Dehn

Maria Dehn has held editorial management positions for numerous print and Web publications. She has more than 17 years of Information Technologies and journalism experience and has written many reports on cloud computing. You can reach her on Twitter @MariaDehn

Maria Dehn

Maria Dehn

Maria Dehn

Maria Dehn