The parents of a teenager with Down syndrome say they suspect they were kept off an American Airlines flight because the pilot didn’t want a disabled child in first class, while the carrier counters the decision was made for safety reasons.
It happened Sunday as Robert Vanderhorst, his wife and their 16-year-old son Bede were set to fly on American Airlines from Newark, N.J. to Los Angeles, after attending a family reunion over the Labor Day weekend.
“We went from first class to last class,” Vanderhorst told NBC News. “From the front of the bus to the back, and the only thing I can conclude is that the airlines do not want people like my son to sit in first class...who may disturb them in some way.”
But American Airlines said the boy was agitated and running around the gate area before boarding, prompting concern from the crew.
"Our pilot noticed and asked a customer service manager to talk to the family to see if we could help him calm down," said airline spokesman Matt Miller.
"That effort was ultimately unsuccessful, and we made the decision to have the family rebooked on a different flight out of concern for the young man's safety and the safety of others."
Vanderhorst, who is an attorney in Porterville, Calif., said the family had coach tickets, but when they got to the airport, his wife decided to splurge and pay $675 for all of them to upgrade to first class. Bede had flown about 30 times before, but never in the premium cabin, so the family was excited about the trip.
Vanderhorst walked Bede around the terminal before the flight. The boy sometimes hums or talks to himself, but doesn’t do it in a loud voice, Vanderhorst said. Bede wasn’t excitable, never ran and did not misbehave in any way, he added.
When it was time to board, the family was approached twice by a customer service representative who told them the pilot was concerned the boy could create a disturbance, according to Vanderhorst’s account. There was alleged unease about Bede’s size – he is 5’1” and weighs 160 pounds – and his seat’s proximity to the cockpit.
"He said, it’s not discrimination, it’s a security issue," Vanderhorst said. "That was a lame excuse."
"Maybe the pilot was scared that I couldn’t control him," he added. "But that’s insane because how do you know I can control my wife on the plane?"
Vanderhorst’s wife recorded part of the incident with her cell phone—a video that also showed Bede sitting quietly.
But American Airlines said that clip was filmed during a calm moment. There were times the boy was calm, but he continued to be agitated when it came time to board, Miller said, so the airline asked the family to take a different flight. The decision was made with careful consideration and based on the boy’s behavior, he added.
The family was rebooked in economy class on United and American has refunded their upgrade fees, Miller said.
Vanderhorst said they were seated in the last row of the plane and noticed that the immediate rows in front of them and next to them were empty.
"We were put in the back seat of the bus and there was a buffer zone around us," he said. "I don’t think the airlines wanted us chatting with our fellow passengers about what had just happened at American Airlines."
He’s convinced flying first class is what prompted the incident—concern that his son would somehow disrupt the comfort and enjoyment of the other first-class passengers.
“Those gentle, kind people spend a little extra for that privilege. But hey, I just spent (an extra) $675 for that privilege as well,” Vanderhorst said.
The family is considering whether to take legal action.
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