FRESNO, Calif. (AP) — A California family that was not allowed to board a cross-country flight says they believe they were discriminated against because their son has Down syndrome.

Robert Vanderhorst, his wife Joan and 16-year-old son Bede, who is disabled, were booked to fly on an American Airlines flight from Newark to Los Angeles on Sunday when the boy and his parents were not allowed on the plane.

The family from Porterville had upgraded to first class tickets at an airport kiosk, and asked the airline to seat the boy and one of his parents together — a request the airline granted — Vanderhorst said Tuesday.

When the family was ready to board, they were stopped by airline personnel, told their son was a “security risk” and would not be allowed on the flight, he said. The parents protested, and later were rebooked to fly coach with another airline.

American Airlines spokesman Matt Miller said the disabled boy was agitated and running around the gate area prior to boarding, which his parents dispute. The airplane’s pilot observed the boy, Miller said, and made the call based on his behavior.

“He was not ready to fly, that was our perspective,” Miller said. “We rebooked the family out of concern for the young man’s safety and that of other passengers as well.”

But Vanderhorst said his son did not run at any time, did not make any loud noises and didn’t display any other offensive behaviors. The boy walked around with him or sat quietly in the gate area, Vanderhorst said.

A cell phone video captured by the boy’s mother shows Bede sitting and quietly playing with a baseball cap.

Vanderhorst said Bede, a freshman at Granite Hills High School in Porterville, about 70 miles from Fresno, is very charming in contact with other people. The family has flown more than two dozen times with him, without any difficulties.

“Usually my son gets his snack and falls asleep, just like most people,” Vanderhorst said. “The problem is this pilot thought my son might not be like most people. He didn’t want a disabled person disturbing other passengers in first class.”

The family says the pilot might have also been affected by the disabled boy’s size — Bede is 5’1 and weighs 160 lbs.

On the second airplane, the family was placed in the last row and no passengers were allowed to sit within two rows of them, Vanderhorst said.

He hoped that airlines would change their mentality when dealing with the disabled.

“It’s ridiculous and groundless to claim that this kid created a security risk,” he said. “It was the pilot’s insecurity. I paid for those seats and there was nothing that should have prevented us from taking that flight.”

American Airlines’ Miller said the company will reimburse the family for the upgrade fees.

Airline Bars California Boy With Down Syndrome From Flight 6 September,2012KQED News Staff and Wires

  • The time has arrived for many to criticize American Airlines now knowing the difficulties the airline is in and the media spotlight that has followed. It is the factual example of the American public’s propensity to ‘jump on the bandwagon’ when an isolated incident that may have occurred against American is publicized. Glenn Beck has also claimed that he was ‘mistreated’ by American Airlines also. I have flown American Airlines on many occasions and have experienced no problems at all. I was treated with professionalism by all American employees I have come in contact with on all my flights with them.
    This couple and Mr. Beck are only exacerbating an airline who is dealing with many problems during it’s time in bankruptcy proceedings. I am a displaced airline employee who lost my career with two airlines after the September 11 terrorist attacks and was devastated by this. Most airline employees love their jobs and this can be evidenced by the industry employee saying “it’s in our blood”. Almost all airline employees subscribe to this and feel the way I do when I say that I love the industry and in my case would do anything to return to it.
    American Airlines is in the process of bankruptcy proceeding with fuel and labor costs and it is a sure bet that all of it’s employees are even more aware of their attitude and performance as they certainly do not want to lose their jobs in the career they love.
    I would not be surprised if more complaints, mostly baseless, are publized now and in the future while American remains in the spotlight regarding it’s bankruptcy and restructuring efforts but I can assure you that American is an excellent airline and will emerge stronger and more efficient. American, for those of you unaware, announced months ago of a major fleet modernization effort to acquire new more efficient and pax comfortable aircraft which would make it’s fleet the youngest in the US. American Airlines must prevail from it’s current financial status and return to regular revenue service as all of it’s employees and most importantly, it’s customers will benefit from the fleet modernization and other changes to return American Airlines to the proud position of being America’s flag carrier worldwide.

    • anon

      All that’s fine, but it shouldn’t be at the cost of dehumanizing what appears to be a perfectly peaceful family, just because of their son’s disability.

  • It’s discrimination. It only became an issue when they were placed in 1st class. Pilots have a responsibility for safety of their aircraft and who flies but not a blank check to say discriminate. American Airlines should be held accountable. Will never fly them again if they’re going to be that way.

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor