American Strands Wheelchair-Using Passenger Without Meds, Charges Her For First Class Seat

While many travelers experience a minor annoyance during their trip, one American Airlines passenger was left helpless, without her medication or anyone to assist her when she was bumped from a flight, only to be booked into and charged for a first class seat. Now the airline can’t be bothered to respond.

Consumerist reader Mary says the incident happened earlier this summer, when her mother, who uses a wheelchair and requires certain medication, was set to fly on American from Tampa to Chicago.

At the airport, Mary’s mom was told that the bag for her catheters counted as a carry-on piece of luggage. That meant she would need to check the bag with her medication. That would have been fine, except for the fact that she was subsequently bumped from the flight but her luggage wasn’t. And so her meds flew on to Chicago while she sat in the airport.

It seems odd to us that AA would consider a catheter bag as a carry-on, as the airline’s own policy states that:

Canes, walkers, CPAP machines and other assistive devices capable of being collapsed small enough to fit into approved overhead and under seat stowage areas are welcome and do not count toward your carry-on item limit.

Given that people who need catheters are not using them for their own amusement, and that they would be necessary in case the passenger needed to void her bladder during the course of the flight, they would seem to fall under this category of “Carry-On Assistive Devices” that do not count against a passenger’s carry-on total.

“When I called the customer support number to say that my mother needed some assistance and there was no one there to help her, the operator indicated that she had no way to contact anyone at American Airlines at the Tampa airport,” Mary tells Consumerist. “She suggested that my mother leave the gate and go find someone to assist her.”

Mary pointed out to the AA rep that her mother is elderly and in a wheelchair, so it’s not exactly easy for her to simply go from gate to gate in a search for assistance. Rather than take initiative and see if she could contact someone at the airport, the AA rep merely suggested that Mary call the police at the airport.

In advance of her mother’s flight, Mary contacted the American Airlines Special Services Department several times in an effort to make sure that everything went seamlessly.

“They knew in advance the details of her disabilities,” recalls Mary. “It had been requested that I obtain a letter from her doctor outlining her disabilities. I did so, and when I called to get the fax number to forward the letter, I was told that it was not needed.”

Mary says she asked the Special Services Department specifically if she should secure a specific seat on the plane for her mother.

“I was told not to pick a seat at all, and they would assign the seat to her,” Mary tells Consumerist. “She is now being charged extra for a first class seat, even though I had asked in advance about seating… My mother is a handicapped senior citizen on a fixed income that was forced to incur unexpected expenses, even though American Airlines had been well informed of her needed accommodations and failed to make arrangements to meet those accommodations.”

Mary had arranged for private ground transportation to pick up her mother at O’Hare International in Chicago. In addition to having to pay extra because her mother was bumped from her flight, the driver had to wait even longer after the later flight arrived because she says the American staff would not help her mother deplane.

“American Airlines staff did not remove her from the plane until the staff from the medical transport company approached them and asked them when they were going to get her off the plane,” says Mary.

As if to rub salt in the wound, when Mary’s mom was finally off the plane and ready to get into her brand-new wheelchair, she found that American had managed to lose part of the device during the flight.

“American Airlines has failed in every aspect on this trip, and miserably failed a handicapped, senior citizen passenger,” writes Mary. “I am very disappointed in the service American provided… Even though all necessary information was given in advance of the flight, they failed to accommodate my mother, and they also failed to provide any support to her while she waited for several hours for the next available flight.”

It seems to us that American should not have demanded that Mary’s mom check the bag containing her medication, as the catheter bag most certainly counts as an assistive device by the airline’s own standards. It’s unclear how her mother ended up in a first class seat, or why the airline charged her for the unasked-for upgrade.

We have tried twice to get American to comment on Mary’s story, but have not heard any word back from the airline. If it decides to reply, we will add the airline’s statement here as an update.