On the return trip of an alaska airlines round trip flight 313 from san francisco to seattle; our eighty six year old grandmother was, just prior to departure, escorted off the aircraft by two gate agents. Her traveling companions, two daughters and son in law, followed voluntarily.
In the aircraft, nanny (The grandmother) and one daughter who happened to be a rn were seated towards the front of the aircraft. My wife and I were seating in the rear. I looked up to see our sister hurrying down the aisle to advise us, in panic mode, that grandmother was being removed from the aircraft for medical reasons. We immediately left our seats but by the time we got to nanny’s seat, all we could see were two airline gate agents physically removing granny from the aircraft. There was no discussion, no consultation with the family. This 86 year old grandmother was forcibly removed from her flight.
Here is what we learned. We were all returning from our granddaughters wedding in san francisco. Nanny, the grandmother, was fully celebratory, and the party and late hours contributed to nanny’s feeling unwell during the night, not sleeping, and being nauseous. There was also some history of stomach issues with nanny. The family consulted and concluded that best thing for nanny would be for her to get home as soon as possible and get her to her personal physician and local healthcare. And nanny, who is an able aware competent senior woman, wanted to go home, and felt, despite being sick, able to make the trip.
Because nanny was ill, and at times, presented as ill, we asked for early boarding and a wheelchair assist to the gate. Nanny walked to her seat. During this process, a flight attendant asked nanny’s daughter, an rn, if nanny was ill. Sister rn told her what had happened and expressed her concern about the family’s need to keep nanny hydrated – primarily due to her age. The flight attendant passed on some version of this information to the gate agent. The gate agent called alaska airlines medical consultant, med link, and passed on some version of the story. The rn sister was summoned to the gate and had a very reluctant low key conversation with some med link professional.
According to the gate agent, nanny was pulled off the aircraft because med link has a rule that one can not fly if one has had an emesis (Vomiting episode) two hours before departure. But granny had not vomited since the prior night. Family was not allowed to review the decision process with med link. It was a fait accompli. And finally, the notion of such a rule is just plain stupid since every one knows that among the tens of thousand of returning passengers from mexico, las vegas, and reno, a significant percentage are puking their guts out in the airport just before they board. The other issue is the question of accountability. Who is accountable at alaska airlines for this decision? In our efforts to learn the antecedents for nanny’s removal, no one was responsible. It was a med-link decision but the customer can’t talk to med link. When I read among the multitude of complaints allegations of that fascist or nazi management dictator styles prevailing in these unfriendly skies, it is precisely because as you go through this process, the customer hears over and over from a variety of gate agents and supervisors “the rule is the rule”, “no one is responsible”, “it is protocol not we who send you to the camps”!
I need to acknowledge that the alaska airlines personnel on the ground in san francisco with whom we discussed these issues were professional. Regardless of the lack of productivity, the conversations I had with sf alaska airlines were professional and the agents were courteous. Alaska airlines allowed nanny and the families to spend their two hour observation period in the boardroom, we were booked promptly on the next flight and my wife and I were given an exit row seat. I was told alaska would pay the cost of a shuttle from seattle to my home but that did not happen. After another prolonged discussion in seattle, I was given a hotel room.
Here are my observations. If you are escorting a relative who appears to be ill and a flight attendant cozies up to you and asks for information about the health of your friend or loved one, either tell them to mind their own business or lie and say they are healthy but look sick. Whatever you say can be used against you. And if your loved one is elderly, be particularly oblique. Flights diverted for health emergencies are a nightmare for all. It makes sense for airlines to prevent air travel for those in medical crisis. But who makes the call between being sick or in a severe medical crisis? In their zeal to avoid diverted flights, the loss of profit caused by a diverted flight, and subsequent costs, alaska airlines is pulling out elderly who are merely sick, causing them to be sicker, and suffer. This is a type of de facto elder discrimination or elder abuse policy that must be promoted at the highest executive level at alaska airlines, since no one at the operational level has a role in the decision. My formal complaint to the dot aviation and consumer protection and enforcement will ask the agency to count the medical pulls and measure the median age of the medical pulls versus the median age of the average customer. That would at least tell us something about the airline policy as it relates to our elder population.