By now, many of you know the story of The Kirschenbaums and their horrifying treatment by United Airlines. In case you do not, here is some background. On December 30th, Elit Kirschenbaum and her husband Jeff, were returning from the Dominican Republic with their 4 children and 10 additional members of their family. The Kirchenbaum’s youngest child, Ivy, is 3 years old and after suffering a stroke in utero, was born with Spastic Quadriplegic Cerebral Palsy — a condition that has left her immobile and at 3 years old, with the stature of a 1 to 2 year old baby.
The Kirschenbaums have traveled with Ivy pretty extensively, and over the course of her life, have been able to fly with her on their lap without incident – Ivy cannot sit on her own without assistance, and the Kirschenbaums have never had a problem sitting her on their lap while flying in the past. In case you question this, just know that The Kirschenbaums flew down to the Dominican Republic just days before under the same circumstances. While they have purchased a ticket for Ivy since her second birthday to follow the FAA guideline that all passengers over the age of 2 have their own seat, they have never had a situation in which Ivy was asked to actually use that purchased seat or been advised of any other preparations they needed to make for her. Until December 30th.
As the Kirschenbaums and their entourage of 16 waited for their plane to depart, they were greeted by 3 kind stewardess walking the aisle, pleasantries exchanged, drinks offered. That is until they met a 4th stewardess more fitted for a job at a federal prison. The stewardess approached the family and informed them of the FAA rule that all passengers over the age of 2 must sit in their own seat. The Kirschenbaums explained the situation to her — that while they would love for that to happen, it was simply an impossibility. The stewardess carried on, relentlessly, unabashedly and shamelessly sticking to her guns that Ivy would have to take her airline issued seat, or she would not be allowed to fly home. The family was repeatedly humiliated in front of the other passengers, even when the 3 other stewardesses attempted to plead the Kirschenbaums case for them. She would not budge. After causing a one hour delay, the pilot finally “reconciled” the situation by having Ivy belted in a center seat between Jeff Kirschenbaum and another family member. Once Ivy was buckled, she laid across her father’s lap. This was only necessary for take off and landing and she was allowed to remain on Elit’s lap for the remainder of the flight. Problem solved, although to me, that seems pretty much like what the Kirschenbaums had been asking for from the get-go.
The story made the local news, the national news, and was like a fire burning on social media. While most people seemed compassionate and genuinely outraged on behalf of the family, there were those questioning why they didn’t put Ivy in a car seat and espousing the old “rules are rules” nonsense. Could the Kirschenbaums have used a car seat? Well, that’s a trick question. How could they use what they did not have in their possession? And why would they have one if their possession if through all of their travels they had never been instructed to use one? And if you aren’t buying that – query: how did the Kirschenbaums fly down to the DR? Answer: With Ivy on their lap, no carseat in their possession. So if rules really are rules, that’s a two way street. Actually enforcing the rules at ALL times wouldn’t lend itself to this kind of situation. Even more than that, The Kirschenbaums were already on board, and could not comply with the rules stewardess #4 was so emphatic about enforcing. So what now? Make the family with 4 children including one with special needs disembark, and drive around a foreign country to find a car seat? I’m sure some of you with hearts of stone are nodding your heads yes. Other more compassionate souls would say that this should have been chalked up to a series of errors, and that the Kirschenbaums were now given a warning and were now on notice that a car seat is required for all subsequent flights they take with their daughter — have a safe flight.
And then United made their official statement. “The parents, who were ticketed in first class, wanted to hold the child in their lap rather than have the child take the seat they’d purchased for her in economy. Federal safety regulations require any child over the age of two to have his or her own seat, and flight attendants are required by law to enforce that safety rule. As we did in this case, we will always try to work with customers on seating arrangements in the event of any special needs.” From there, all hell broke loose. People (rightfully?) implied from the statement that the Kirschenbaums were trying to get away with sneaking in an extra First Class seat, or worse, trying to get away from their daughter, and incredibly, even worse than that. United’s statement is actually patently false. In fact, it was some of the most callous PR spin any corporation has had the nerve to actually disseminate.
The truth of the matter is that Jeff Kirschenbaum’s parents purchased all 16 tickets using their miles. They booked whatever seats the airline had available, which were 12 in Business Class, 4 in Coach. The family was assigned seats once they reached the airport, and while Elit and Jeff were assigned Business Class seats, their children were given seats in Coach/Economy. When they boarded, Elit’s sister-in-law quite obviously offered to switch her family’s seats with them as her children are much older and capable of sitting on their own, and so that the Kirschenbaum 6 could sit together. Whether or not United knew the extent of the logistics of the ticket switching or not, their failure to do their due diligence, or their contrived and reckless statement, did not tell the whole story. There is no seedy, manipulative side to the Kirschenbaums. I cannot say the same for United.
In the end, what did the Kirschenbaums want for their troubles? A refund? No. A free trip? No. All they wanted was an apology. Though seemingly reluctant and unwilling at first, United has finally issued that apology to the family. And now all is right in the world. Wait — no it’s not.
The issue at the core of this situation is the lack of humanity, compassion, kindness, and understanding that most airlines have gotten used to getting away with. Since this story happened, I have been regaled with story after story of how a particular friend or their family was mistreated, almost to the point of abuse by an airline. I myself have a story. When my son Benjamin was 8 months old he spent the duration of a flight home from Turks and Caicos vomiting all over my husband and myself. The flight crew offered us 3 cocktail napkins. That is not an under exaggeration. My husband’s cousin had an incident just a few weeks ago where her uncle, a stage 4 colon cancer victim was berated by a stewardess and called a liar when she couldn’t find his pre-boarding certificate. The situation sent him to the emergency room upon landing. There have been dogs who’ve disappeared, verbal wars and more. Isn’t the airline industry also a service industry? And we’re paying a premium for this? No wonder most airlines are having trouble staying afloat. This is not to say that all flight crews are ego driven, power trippers who lack compassion and empathy. I pointed out the 3 stewardesses who were so horrified by what went on with The Kirschenbaums that they themselves went to bat for them and ended up in tears. But like most things, one bad apple spoils the bunch. What can be done? Sensitivity training? Corporate policy revisions? The FAA taking the arbitrary rules out of their policies and actually giving some critical thought to their intent versus how they are actually applied? All of these are good starts. For now, just cross your fingers that you don’t end up in the cross-hairs of a crew member who decides to take out their frustration on you or your family.
I give kudos to The Kirschenbaums, who handled this situation with so much dignity. I cannot say I could do the same. In my mind’s eye, I punch that stewardess in the face, and then cry, letting out all of my frustration and anger in those tears. And to all of those commenters on social media and those commenting elsewhere online so sanctimoniously and with that rules-are-rules mantra — I hope you sleep well knowing a little more about the family you’re so quick to criticize and resolve this year to think long and hard about which side of right & wrong you are actually on.