The flight was already shaping up as a classic holiday season travel headache, and the plane had not even left the ground.
Mei Rui, an acclaimed concert pianist and a cancer researcher, was supposed to catch a Spirit Airlines flight from her home in Houston to Newark on Friday. The trip was for a recording connected with a clinical cancer study in New York City. The plans were made months ago. Rui’s elderly mother and father were along for the ride, as was her 2-year-old son.
But the 6:30 a.m. flight was repeatedly delayed due to weather, stranding passengers in the cabin, she said, a fact confirmed by flight data. When it finally seemed like the jet was ready to go, she began breast-feeding her son, hoping it would put him to sleep — and keep him from crying — on the three-hour ride.
“Every parent with a young child can image, you don’t want to be that parent on the plane,” she told The Washington Post. “It would be very embarrassing. I was just trying to avoid that.”
According to Rui, while the plane’s door was still open and people were moving about the cabin, a few flight attendants walked by without saying anything. Then one approached Rui and said her baby had to be in his seat for takeoff.
“I asked for just a couple more minutes to finish because if he woke up at that point he would have made a lot of noise,” Rui said. “I said, ‘I promise I’ll finish before you close the plane’s door.’”
The flight attendants conferred at the front of the plane. Rui stopped feeding her son, and as she predicted, the baby began crying. That was when the crew instructed Rui she needed to get off the plane, she told The Post. With her cellphone camera rolling, Rui asked why she was being asked to leave if the baby was strapped in.
“It’s not like I was resistant, I put him in the seat,” she said. “If they had shown a little compassion, it wouldn’t have happened, they didn’t have to let it escalate.”
Eventually, the crew announced all the passengers had to get off their phones. At the end of the Jetway, police officers were waiting as the mom struggled along with her crying son. A Spirit Airlines representative told her she would not be allowed back on board.
“I just want to know why we were kicked off the plane?” Rui asked the airline representative as he and a handful of uniformed officers blocked her from the plane gate.
“Because you were not compliant.”
“Could you tell me which part of the instruction we were not compliant with?” she asked as her son continued to cry. “I think we deserve to know that.”
But the airline representative declined to give more details.
“If this happened to your family.” Rui said.
But the airline representative cut her off. “It wouldn’t happen to my family, I can assure you.”
According to Rui, her mother and father, Chinese natives who lived through the traumatic experience of the country’s Cultural Revolution, were already terrified from the run-in with plane authorities.
But the day got worse, she says. The family waited for an hour for their luggage, but the items were never returned. Then, after riding back home, Rui’s father, who suffers from heart ailments, collapsed and had to be rushed to the emergency room.
In a statement to Houston’s KHOU, Spirit stood by the decision to take Rui and her family off the plane.
“Our records indicate a passenger was removed from Flight 712 after refusing to comply with crew instructions several times during taxi to runway and safety briefing. To protect the safety of our guests and crew, FAA regulations and airline policies require all passengers to stay seated and buckled during takeoff and landing. We apologize for any inconvenience to our guests. As a courtesy, we’ve issued a full refund to the passenger in question.”
Rui never made it to New York. The run-in with Spirit was another blow in an already tough year, Rui said. Her family lost their house and possessions (including her piano) in Hurricane Harvey, she said, and they are still living in temporary housing.
Rui, a Yale graduate, holds degrees in molecular biophysics and biochemistry and music. She’s been performing classical piano since the age of 10 and received a Grammy nomination in 2015, according to her biography.
“They treated us like we were criminals,” she told The Post. “A baby crying is not a crime.”
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