A Delta Airlines official conceded Friday that “we failed” Marine Cpl. Christian Brown, the double amputee prevented by a flight crew from taking a first-class seat offered by strangers after he was clumsily wheeled down the length of the plane to the last row in coach.
The Dec. 9 ordeal that reduced Brown to tears was first reported by She The People, and included sharp criticism of Delta and the crew by two retired Army officers on the flight. Once the story was posted, hundreds of commenters on WashingtonPost.com, Facebook, Twitter and other sites blasted the airline. Many also urged readers to complain directly to Delta.
Brown, 29, was on his second combat tour in Afghanistan on Dec. 13, 2011 when he lost both legs to an explosive device in Helmand province. A year after multiple surgeries, health setbacks and the grueling work of learning to walk on prosthetic legs, he was flying back to Washington via Atlanta after a hunting trip in Alabama for wounded service members.
On Friday, Allison Ausband, Delta vice president for customer care, used a company blog to offer Brown a dual mea culpa and an olive branch after he swore he’d never fly the airline again.
“Unfortunately, we failed in this situation. We strive to exceed expectations with every customer, and particularly regret when we fail a member of the military or person with a disability,” Ausband wrote. “We are taking this isolated situation very seriously and doing what we can to make it right with the customer, which will help to prevent situations like this in the future.”
She also noted that Delta has been unable to contact Brown, who has spent much of the past year at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center outside Washington. After months in the hospital, he moved into an out-patient apartment at the complex that he shares with his mother.
Lyn Braden-Reed declined to comment on Delta’s conciliatory approach to her son, or its unspecified offer to make things “right.” She referred inquiries to the military, in this case the Marine Corps’ Wounded Warrior Regiment press officer. There was no immediate response from that spokeswoman to an email and phone message seeking family reaction.
“What is clear,” Ausband acknowleged, “is that we did not care for this customer the way we should have. This incident doesn’t reflect the care with which Delta people serve our customers every day, and it doesn’t reflect the high regard we hold for those who do and have served our country.”
Delta’s “admission of wrongdoing is a great first step,” said retired Army Col. Nickey Knighton, who was seated in the last row with Brown on the flight, and later complained of his humiliating treatment by an intransigent crew in a letter obtained by She The People. Knighton suggested Delta now “look at other things, especially company leadership, because if you can’t get a complaint to the right people in a timely fashion there is something wrong.”
A helicopter pilot whose long career included stints in the first Gulf War, Bosnia and Somalia, Knighton said Delta must also examine “leadership on board that aircraft because putting Brown all the way in the back” violated emergency evacuation procedures. “Not one member of the crew said, ‘stop, this is wrong’.”
One piece of practical, albeit pricey advice to Brown came from former Army Capt. Max Cleland, who lost an arm and both legs in a 1968 grenade blast in Vietnam. He knows all about those narrow, straight-back airline wheelchairs like the one used to push Brown to the rear of the plane, complete with frequent embarrassing bumps into passenger seats along the way.
“I now pay not to have to do that,” said Cleland, a Georgia Democrat who has long commuted between Atlanta and Washington. His jobs here included running the old Veterans Administration, 14 years in the U.S. Senate and a stint at the Export-Import Bank.
These days, as secretary of the American Battle Monuments Commission, he only flies on MD 88 or MD 90 aircraft and only books seat 1B in first class. “The very front of the plane is wide enough for my own wheelchair. The arm rest of the seat lifts up so I can hop into it from my wheelchair, which gets stowed into the hold until we land. Then I hop back into it.” This expensive survival tactic “took me decades to figure out.”
If Delta is really serious about making it right, the airline might want to heed Cleland’s advice and give Brown seat 1B next week when he hopes to go home to suburban Memphis for the holidays.
Annie Groer is a former Washington Post and PoliticsDaily.com columnist and reporter who writes widely on politics, culture and design. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times, Town & Country and More; she is at work on a memoir.