Mother Angry That Airline Employee ‘Humiliated’ Her Special Needs Daughter By Following Federal Law
A New Jersey mother is angry with United Airlines for, she says, a flight attendant ‘humiliating’ her special needs daughter on a flight home to Newark from the Dominican Republic, and the social media fallout under the hashtag #UnitedWithIvy has been hot and heavy. But the humiliation involved appears to have been expecting her to comply with FAA regulations so that this special needs child could travel safely and securely.
The FAA requires every child over the age of two to have their own seat – a regulation that Elit Kirschenbaum was happy to comply with for her three-year-old daughter Ivy, who is unable to sit unassisted. Kirschenbaum bought a seat while intending to hold Ivy on her lap, since her daughter, she says, weighs only about 25 pounds – about the size of a one-year-old. The problem, though, was that the seat Kirschenbaum purchased for her daughter was in economy – while the seats she, her husband, and her 11-year-old son occupied were in first class. Here are a short list of things you cannot make use of when your child’s seat is at the opposite end of the plane from where she is actually sitting:
- That seat’s safety belt
- That seat’s oxygen mask
Some seat rows come with extra oxygen masks, but some don’t (as I found out after getting hustled from seat to seat twice over the course of four flights during a single trip), and I’m not sure about the row Kirschenbaum and her family were seated in; meanwhile, exactly zero airplane seats come equipped with extra safety belts. Despite this safety issue, Kisrchenbaum says she has traveled with Ivy in the same way multiple times since her daughter turned 2 and aged out of the lap-sit exception. On this flight, however, one of the flight attendants happened to notice the situation, and said: absolutely not.
In the end, the solution reached was this: during takeoff and landing, Ivy was held lying down across her mother and brother’s laps and belted in with their belts (which, by the way, is not an ideal way to achieve proper protection from a safety belt for any of the three people involved, although better than leaving Ivy unbuckled).
The flight was delayed more than an hour, and, as CBS reports, in the words of Ivy’s father Jeff, “[i]It took an hour of arguing, embarrassment, screaming, crying to come up with such a simple plan which didn’t even seem any different than having her sit on her lap[.]” I feel for the family traveling with their special needs child, but I also feel for a flight attendant who is trying to do her job (and also trying to avoid breaking federal aviation regulations) and getting screamed at by the parents of a child she is trying to make sure is flying safely.
Kirschenbaum says the other three flight attendants on the plane found something in a flight attendant handbook that makes lap-sit exceptions for older kids who cannot sit unassisted, but the only rules I can find on the FAA’s website say that kids of Ivy’s age and size should be using child restraint devices – a car seat, or a specialized airplane-seat restraint gadget called ‘CARES’. (Car seats are recommended even for kids under age 2 flying, since it can be really hard to hold even a tiny baby tightly enough to keep him from hitting his head during turbulence, let alone a full-sized two-year-old.)
I cannot possibly know or understand the challenges inherent in being a special needs parent, but having a special needs child cannot erase the fact that these regulations are in place for the safety of Ivy and other children. Kirschenbaum knew there was a rule in place, but decided that because “[t]here are significant and obvious and extenuating circumstances here” she didn’t have to follow it, without contacting the airline or the FAA to see what she should do instead. It’s not fair to heap ire on the lone flight attendant who was doing her job to try to keep passengers safe – not to mention obeying federal law. This situation could have been avoided, Kirschenbaum is right; but not by a flight attendant looking the other way when a child’s safety is on the line.