United Airlines has apologized to a New Jersey family for the way one of its employees behaved during a disagreement over seat accommodations for a child with special needs.
The apology came after Elit Kirschenbaum blasted the airline for humiliating her family when a United flight attendant refused to compromise and allow Kirschenbaum’s 3-year-old daughter — who is unable to sit upright on her own — to sit in her mother’s lap during the flight.
Three-year-old Ivy suffered a stroke in the womb, which resulted in Spastic Quadriplegic Cerebral Palsy, among other things. During her family’s flight home from the Dominican Republic to New Jersey on Tuesday, Kirschenbaum prepared to hold Ivy in her lap, just as she had several times in the past — including on the trip to the Dominican Republic for a family vacation, Kirschenbaum told The Washington Post in an interview.
Several flight attendants passed her seat as 25-pound Ivy was seated on her mother’s lap, some of them saying hello and acknowledging the child, Kirschenbaum said. But a fourth flight attendant insisted that Ivy sit in a seat by herself, despite pleas from the family and their attempts to explain that Ivy is 100 percent dependent on other people and does not have the ability to walk, talk or sit by herself, or even to control her head movements without assistance.
“She, developmentally, is at six months,” Kirschenbaum said on Friday, as Ivy played in a therapy session in the background.
The airline’s apology on Thursday followed a firestorm of criticism that came after Kirschenbaum’s story was first publicized by ABC News.
The United representative apologized in a phone call for the flight attendant’s “lack of compassion and just understanding that we were doing our best to come to a resolution and we weren’t being treated like people,” Kirschenbaum said. “She was just really standing behind the rule, which of course does need to be followed, but not being able to have any flexibility in terms of listening to why we were in our situation.”
The flight attendant in question noted that Federal Aviation Administration regulations require any passenger at least 2 years old must have her own ticket and seat. It wasn’t until the pilot suggested that Ivy sit in a seat next to her father, with her head on his lap, that the flight was able to take off.
Kirschenbaum said that at the time of the disagreement, she was not aware that there were no exceptions to the FAA rule, because on several other flights with Ivy, the child had always flown in her parents’ lap.
In an initial statement, United appeared indifferent to Kirschenbaum’s predicament, further inflaming the situation. The statement, given to ABC News, noted that Ivy’s parents were “ticketed in first class” and wanted to hold Ivy in their lap, “rather than have the child take the seat they’d purchased for her in economy.”
Kirschenbaum said those comments were unnecessary and were made only to throw her family “under the bus.” She added that the tickets were purchased with frequent-flyer miles; when the seats were assigned at the airport, she said, she and her husband, Jeff, were assigned seats in business class, but their four children (ages 11, 8, 6 and 3) were assigned seats in economy. Kirschenbaum said she switched seats with other family members traveling with their group so that she could sit with her young children.
“Shame on [the spokesperson] for being so untruthful; for deflecting any sort of accountability by United; for painting my family in such a negative light,” Kirschenbaum told The Post. “All of the horrible, horrible firestorm on social media based on this one inaccurate comment is appalling and wasn’t necessary and is untrue and has me now defending myself as a parent.”
Kirschenbaum received plenty of support with people using the #UnitedWithIvy hashtag to voice disappointment with the airline. But many others offered sharp criticism, some suggesting that her family was trying to game the system in order to get her daughter into business class without paying for the cost of the ticket.
This #unitedwithivy family is full of crap. Should have bought seats together & belted her in. Airline was in the right.
— Emily (@thedoorchick) January 2, 2015
@kirsch71 so you bought your disable child a coach ticket while you flew first class. You win parents of the year award
— I Dont Care (@idontcare2212) January 2, 2015
Others commented that the flight attendant was only following the rules she was required by law to enforce, in the interest of safety.
“My daughter does not have a voice, and it is my obligation to be that voice for her,” Kirschenbaum said. “I can’t believe that there are people out there who think the kinds of things that these people wrote. Talk about being shocked at humanity.”
The family has plans to take another trip on United in six weeks, and Kirschenbaum said her daughter will be in an FAA-approved seat, now that she knows they’re available.
Kirschenbaum added that she feels no ill-will toward United, particularly because three of the four other flight attendants on the plane that day were “so wonderful” to Ivy and the family.
She never wanted free flights, she said, or to pursue legal action — only an acknowledgement that the employee’s behavior was wrong.
“I want them to recognize that not everyone fits the same mold,” Kirschenbaum said. “You need to put humanity into your decision-making. You need to put compassion into your decision-making.”