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American Airlines Took a Family With Autistic Children off a Flight

Oct. 09, 2018
11 min read
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A family of seven was removed from an American Airlines flight last week after their 5-year-old, Milo, panicked on the jet bridge and refused to board the plane.

Adam and Heather Halkuff were en route to Kansas City from Dallas - Fort Worth on Oct. 4 with their five children, including Milo, who has autism. During the boarding process, Milo froze after he rounded the corner of the jet bridge and saw the door of the aircraft. He refused to move forward and clung to his mother for comfort.

The airline gate agents were friendly and cheerful at first, Heather said, but changed their tone when she told them that Milo is autistic. "Two of the three agents told me 'He's not allowed on the plane,' even though I told them we had participated in the American Airlines autism support program," and had been working with an American Airlines disability coordinator, Heather told TPG. In response, Heather said, a gate agent pointed at Milo and told her, "You must have done the program through the airport, not us. American Airlines doesn't have a program like that, and they would never let someone like that on the plane."

Devastated, the couple made an on-the-spot decision that Heather would continue on the trip with the older boys, who were already in their seats on the plane, while Adam would stay behind in Dallas with Milo and Ollie, their 2-year-old. But when Heather walked back down the jet bridge, she found out her older sons, ages 16, 12 and 10, had been escorted off the plane with flight attendants who helped them remove their bags from the overhead bins.

By this point, Adam had gotten in touch with their disability coordinator, who had made their way to the gate. Heather "had snot running down my nose" from crying, she said, while Adam tried to talk to the gate agent who had kicked their older sons off of the plane. When the disability coordinator arrived, she kept apologizing profusely to the family, offering to reschedule them on the 3pm flight and asking if she could find the family a private room in which to wait for the next plane. "She kept saying, 'I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry, I can help you,'" Heather said. "But at that point, I knew I would never fly American Airlines again. So we all just went home."

Preparing Their Children for Flight

"This trip was a really big deal for us," Heather told TPG. "Having a kid with disabilities is very isolating. There's this stigma... we don't go out very often."

The Halkuffs used to travel often until Milo and Ollie were diagnosed with autism. Adam, a consultant who holds Gold elite status on American Airlines, pulled together a stash of AAdvantage miles to book seven award tickets for the family at a saver award rate to travel from DFW to MCI.

Although neither Milo nor Ollie are severely autistic, Heather was well aware of potential complications that could still occur in a hectic airport system, since people with autism often struggle in highly stimulating environments. So in preparation for the big trip, Milo and Ollie spent months working with their applied behavioral analysis therapists to practice for the big day. The therapists taught the boys a number of coping behaviors, such as walking calmly and holding hands, which would help provide stability and calm in the high-stress airport environment.

Heather also reached out to American Airlines four months before the scheduled departure date to see if the carrier could help. She was pleasantly surprised to hear back that same day from a Concierge Key representative for American, who told Heather about the airline's "It's Cool to Fly" program, which hosts biannual events for autistic children and their families to practice navigating their local airport and experience boarding a plane.

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However, the Halkuffs were scheduled to fly two days before the next Dallas event on Oct. 6, so their American Airlines disability coordinator helped coordinate a special "trial run" on Sept. 24, just for Milo and Ollie. Ecstatic, the family drove 45 miles from Rockwall, Texas, to meet the American team at DFW.

Milo Halkuff, 5, enjoyed his "practice run" boarding a plane with dad Adam on Sept. 24 as part of the American Airlines "It's Cool to Fly" program. (Photo courtesy of Heather Halkuff)

"Everything went just great during the practice run," Heather told TPG. "The boys were happy, walked together holding hands... they [and their therapists] practiced a lot."

Still not at ease, Heather pressed both the disability coordinator and the Concierge Key representative for additional confirmation, asking several times, "If Milo has issues on the day of our trip, will they still let me on the plane?" Both women reassured Heather that they would take care of the family. "They kept telling me, 'We're going to take care of it, we're going to take care of it,'" Heather said.

A Trip That Became Memorable for All the Wrong Reasons

On the day of trip, the family missed their 8:55am flight on AA784 due to rush hour traffic as well as the stress of managing everything needed for two small children with disabilities. But since AA allows free changes on award flights as long as the origin and destination remain the same, the family's assigned disability coordinator, who was aware of the delay, had rebooked the Halkuffs on AA1505 departing at 1pm, handing them new boarding passes and escorting them to their new gate.

With Milo's special needs in mind, Adam went to the gate agent right before boarding to ask if the family could pre-board — a request that should have been in the airline's notes for the family as a result of Heather's conversation with the disability support team on Sept. 24. The request was denied, according to Heather, who said that the gate agent told Adam, "Boarding Group 4 is close enough." (TPG asked American Airlines whether the Halkuff family's tickets had been flagged for pre-boarding, although a spokesperson had not confirmed either way as of the time of this post.)

The family began to board at 12:29pm, according to AA's official records, and all went smoothly until Milo rounded the corner of the jet bridge and saw the door of the aircraft. Heather saw his reaction and asked Adam to take the other boys on to the plane while she took care of Milo. "I was holding his hand, and I could tell he was starting to freak out," Heather said, who noted that Milo had been awake since 6:30am and was overwhelmed. "So we sat down in a corner out of the way of everyone boarding, next to all the strollers waiting to be checked in, and he lay down in my lap."

One of American Airlines' new 737s. The cabin gives standard economy passengers less space, but also an entertainment system to distract them. (Josh Noel/Chicago Tribune/MCT via Getty Images)
The economy cabin on an American Airlines 737-800 like the one that operated flight AA1505 — the flight the Halkuffs were booked to fly.  (Photo by Josh Noel/Chicago Tribune/MCT via Getty Images)

Heather said Milo let out little sobs, touching the walls or touching his mother for comfort. A female gate agent stopped by to ask if they needed anything, to which Heather responded, "It's OK, he has autism, and my husband is coming back from the plane to help us."

Heather told TPG that the gate agent returned shortly after Adam did, telling the couple, "He's not allowed on the plane," referring to Milo. By this point Milo had calmed down in his father's arms. But the gate agent continued, "He won't [calm down], I know he won't, he's going to start crying on the plane, and he's going to bother all the passengers, and we're going to have to turn [the plane] around and escort your entire family off."

Two other gate agents then appeared, one of whom told the employees to "shut the doors, shut the doors." At this point, Heather said she started to cry, telling the gate agent that the AA disability team had promised her that "it would be fine if Milo gets upset," and that they had participated in the airline's "It's Cool to Fly" program just a few days prior. The agent responded that AA "would never let a kid like him," pointing directly at Milo, "on the plane."

By this point, father Adam had reboarded the plane to get Ollie and collect Milo's car seat, and to let the older boys know that they were going to go ahead to Kansas City with just their mother — a contingency plan the family had rehearsed in the event that Milo couldn't handle the stress. "I was brokenhearted," Heather said.

That's when she was surprised to find her older sons already waiting there with their bags taken off the aircraft. All three boys said the male gate agent had gotten them to leave the plane by saying that their parents asked them to get off, although the agent denied that he had. Heather also said the agent told her that he had removed the children from the flight "because they aren't old enough to fly alone." (They wouldn't have been alone, in fact.)

"My 10-year-old is crying, and I'm crying," Heather said, as the conflict between the Halkuffs and the gate agent continued to escalate while the disability coordinator kept trying to apologize, saying, "'This shouldn't have happened.'"

The Aftermath

A spokesperson for the airline told TPG Monday, "We are concerned to hear about this situation. Our team has reached out to the Halkuff family to gather more information about what transpired at Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW). The American Airlines team is committed to providing a safe and pleasant travel experience for all of our customers. When it comes to autism, American is a strong advocate for children. Our team members work closely with various nonprofit groups to alleviate the stress these children and their families may experience while flying, including offering families the opportunity to take a test fight on the ground. This process — which includes role-playing and realistic airport interactions — helps children grow accustomed to the experience of flight."

However, the Halkuffs told TPG that American Airlines has not reached out since October 5. A couple of AA employees at American called the night of and the day following the incident, ranging from a member of the Executive World Elite customer service team to a self-identified member of the "disability team." But Heather said that none of them were able to tell her what changes the airline plans to make in order to better serve passengers with special needs.

Heather also told TPG that their original disability coordinator, as well as the Concierge Key representative, both went out of their way to be helpful. However, the gate agents completely negated the family's overall experience with American Airlines. The couple said their 10-year-old son cried all weekend after the mishap, while their 12-year-old is angry and confused about why they didn't get to travel. "My 16-year-old son said to me, 'Why don't we ever get to go anywhere? I'm just mad and I don't know why.'"

Milo has slipped into some regressive behavior as well. "Kids with autism have to have follow-through," Heather said. "You have to make sure they do something again, because otherwise, you're sending them that message that they don't have to do it. By not letting Milo board Thursday, American Airlines undid months of therapy." Heather is also heartbroken over the way the gate agents spoke about Milo to his face. "He's very intelligent," Heather said. "Milo just processes information differently. They talked at and about him like he wasn't even there."

"They know they did wrong at American Airlines," Heather told TPG. "Not one person has defended anything; the employees who have called me keep saying things like, 'I'm also a mother,' and 'I'm so sorry.' All I want to get out there is the message that just because you say you advocate for children with autism doesn't make it true. If your programs don't trickle down to your employees, you're offering nothing. I want people to know that we did everything right, everything that we were told to do. Families of children with special needs need to be allowed to travel, and to have a life and should not be shamed."

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