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Flight crew grounded, airline apologizes after family of passenger with autism complains about treatment

Ayo Isola, center, is seen with brother Tayo and sister Kemi. (Isola family)

Delta Air Lines has apologized to a family who complained that they were mistreated when trying to make sure that one member who is autistic was seated with a relative during a recent flight.

SkyWest, the regional carrier that operated the Detroit-to-Houston Delta Connection flight, has removed the crew in question from flying while the incident is under review.

In a widely shared Facebook post, 23-year-old Ayo Isola said he and his family members — mother Abi, sister Kemi and younger brother Tayo, who is on the autism spectrum and “essentially nonverbal” — boarded Flight 3596 in Detroit on their way home after a two-week vacation in Europe. After being held up because of a customs computer outage Friday, they had to run to catch the flight.

Isola said that normally they would have arrived early and explained at the gate that his 21-year-old brother needed to sit with a family member, but in this case, they arrived with no time to spare. He told The Washington Post he wasn’t sure what arrangements were made when the tickets were booked, but once they got on board, they realized their seats were not together.

“For his safety and the safety of those around him, it is important that he sit with a family member on flights,” wrote Isola, a graduate student at the University of Houston who hopes to go on to medical school and become a surgeon.

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Isola said his brother balked at sitting in his assigned seat next to a stranger, so a fellow passenger traded places to allow the 21-year-old to sit next to his sister. At that point, he said, a flight attendant told Tayo to return to his original seat, though it was not clear why. Isola said family members explained that his brother needed the accommodation due to his diagnosis but wrote that the crew member “continued to raise hell.”

“She was mad, she was raising her voice, other passengers were raising their voice, saying, ‘Let it go, let them sit, let us take off,’” Isola said. “It did get kind of contentious there.” Meanwhile, the flight delay was growing and the flight attendant took her concern to the pilot, Isola said.

Ultimately, he said, the pilot told all passengers to get off the plane. After waiting in the terminal, Isola said an announcement came that the crew would not complete the flight. It took another three hours for a new crew to arrive, re-board the plane and take off, he said.

“The new crew came and accommodated for us and it was fine,” Isola said.

Representatives for Delta and SkyWest declined to provide detailed answers to questions about the flight. It was not clear when the crew knew the concerns about seating were because of an autistic passenger, though Isola said family members told the flight attendant as soon as she asked his brother to return to his original seat.

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SkyWest released a statement Wednesday apologizing to customers on the flight “for any inconvenience following an issue regarding seat assignments during boarding."

“We are committed to ongoing training for all of our employees to ensure we provide a consistent, welcoming and positive experience for all of our passengers,” the airline said.

Delta, which also has the incident under review, released a statement Wednesday that said only: “Delta has reached out to the Isola family, apologized for their experience and resolved the matter.”

Isola, who has worked and volunteered with people with disabilities, said Wednesday that he had received an apology from someone at Delta. “I voiced my concerns to them and they said they were going to work on handling it internally,” he said. He had earlier sent a formal complaint to the airline and called to follow up.

He told The Washington Post that he’s not looking for anyone to lose their job, though he wants the crew from his flight to get “some serious sensitivity training.” Since he took his story to Facebook on Sunday, he said he has heard from people who are disabled or who have family members with disabilities who have shared their own stories about running into issues while flying.

“I want to see the airlines raise their standard and assess their standards of how their employees treat people and how they are trained to work with all kinds of people, no matter what their differences may be,” he said. “I just kind of want to use my current platform to make some change for the future.”

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