Denied Boarding For Having Cancer? Ouch!

Filed Under: Alaska

Here’s a story that can’t help but make you shake your head. Earlier in the week a lady was flying Alaska Airlines from Lihue to San Jose, when she was denied boarding for having cancer.

Here’s how Elizabeth Sedway, the passenger, described the incident on her Facebook page:

Today, we were at gate 8 ready to depart on Alaska Airlines for San Jose. An airline employee saw me seated in the handicap section of the boarding area. She asked me if I needed anything. The first time. I said no. The second time, O said, well I might need a bit of extra time to board, sometimes I feel weak. Because I said the word weak, the Alaska Airlines employee called a doctor, she claimed was associated with the airlines. After we board the plane. An Alaska representative boarded the plane, and told us I could not fly without a note from a doctor stating that I was cleared to fly. The video is of us being removed from the plane.

And here’s the video she took while being removed from the plane:

So what possible explanation could there be for this? Here’s an apology and explanation from an Alaska spokeswoman, via CNN:

“We regret the inconvenience Ms. Sedway experienced … and are very sorry for how the situation was handled,” Alaska Airlines spokeswoman Bobbie Egan said. “… While our employee had the customer’s well-being in mind, the situation could have been handled differently.”

Egan, the Alaska Airlines spokeswoman, acknowledged that the carrier’s policy when someone has a medical issue is to call MedLink, a group of ER nurses and doctors. The idea, she explained, is that “it is better to address medical issues or concerns on the ground rather than in the air, especially on flights to or from Hawaii” — which in that case would last five-plus hours over open ocean.

Alaska Airlines since apologized to Sedway “for the disruption this has caused,” in addition to refunding her family’s tickets and paying for their overnight accommodations.”

I don’t think anyone was being malicious here, but rather that there was probably just some miscommunication and a lot of ignorance.

FlyerTalk member SF1K was actually on the flight and shared what he witnessed, which sounds pretty bad. It sounds like there was quite a bit of back and forth as well, which only added to the humiliation:

They had already told her no in the boarding area. Then changed their minds and let her board. As she came in and was greeted and ine of the FAs said something along the lines of “hope your ok” to which she responded “no I’m not – I have cancer and they almost wouldn’t let me fly” she was in tears. She had already cried in the boarding area as well.

After she was seated there was more back and forth and then they deplaned her and her family right before we closed the door. The captain said to each one of the kids, the husband and to the wife that “everything would be ok”. He seemed quite sympathetic. I don’t know who made the call on whether she could fly or not.

What a terrible situation…

  1. This is outrageous! As someoone who lives in Hawaii and work in the health care industry, I can say that sick people (cancer, leukemia, unknown causes, some unusual and dificult pregnances [something wrong with the unborn], among other) fly to the mainland all the time to get the treatment they need.

  2. My heart goes out to tis woman and her family. More compassion in this world would not be such a bad thing. My prayers are for her recovery.

  3. I do think that if an airline employee believes the passenger is too sick to fly it is the correct decision to not let them board. They risk causing multiple rebookings and are liable for thousands of dollars of passenger compensation if the flight is diverted etc.

  4. I agree that this is an unfortunate situation and having lost my own mom to cancer many years ago, my heart goes out to her and her family. That being said, I remember traveling when I was visibly pregnant and being aware it was advisable to travel with a doctors note saying that I was medically cleared for travel. I am just wondering what a cancer patient did not anticipate being asked the same.

  5. This is standard procedure for pretty much any airline. If you mention you’re not feeling well prior to departure, the FAs will be calling MedLink. If MedLink says it’s a no go, you’re not getting on the flight. Doesn’t matter what the sickness.

    Word of advice — never admit to the CSA or flight crew that you’re feeling unwell prior to departure. Almost 100% you won’t fly.

  6. I just can not believe this. Unless if the person was making the situation worse than it was we should not be causing notice. They are employees or an airline and not medics so must would not know what to do and could have been scared of hearing that she felt week. Maybe thinking that if she was allowed to board her situation would be worse. So she called the Medics. This should have nothing with Alaska Airlines. If she formed a clot or passed out on the flight the same people would be screaming why they allowed her to board a plan.

    Ps. A little background is that we NEVER NEVER fly with a child that is recovering from cancer and only will drive a max. hour away from the hospital during this time.

    There are many different forms of cancer that would NOT be a concern. I wish the best for the flyer and hope all improves but does make me wander if my cancer came back and all I wanted was to see a few places before my time that I have to be concerned about being removed from a plane……..

  7. Another example on how bad is to give too much authority to airline personnel. Now they can decide if they will make your life miserable or not. I fell that from the time I enter an airport until the time I leave on the next one I am walking on eggs because anything I say or anyway I act can be seen as suspicious or a threat to national security and I can get in trouble if a TSA or an airline agent decides to. It is becoming quite stressful to fly nowadays.

  8. The passenger said they felt weak. It would be irresponsible for any of the staff there to let her board until they were satisfied that she was fit to fly safely. Calling a medical professional to make that assessment is reasonable.
    It sounds like it wasn’t handled as well as it could be. The decision should have been made prior to her boarding, not after.
    The lady has cancer, that sucks, but it isn’t really the issue here. Someone has to make an assessment whether the passenger is safe to fly or not, regardless of what they do or don’t have. A lot of passengers won’t make the assessment themselves, they’ll board when they are hungover and will no doubt vomit everywhere, have symptoms of Ebola..

  9. There should be a fleet of doctors that will fly with someone in case there’s an emergency. It’s surprising (with the number of medical travelling nowadays) that this isn’t a thing yet.

    Alaska was being careful here. A sudden sickness might lead to a disaster midair, and not having a doctor on board is dangerous. So while it is technically Alaska’s fault, I personally won’t blame them.

  10. This applies to all airlines. Sick ppl need a letter from the doctor that they are fit enough to fly.
    The reasons are that a doctor need to verify it is safe for the person, that they can handle to sit upright for the period, that they can handle the high cabin altitude, the dry air, etc etc.

    And they need to be able to evacuate if needed and sometimes they need to have with them someone that can help.

    And this is the reason:
    If the flight need to declare emergency and divert, it results in a higher risk for that flight for many reasons. The flight will typically divert to an unfamiliar airport, as quick as possible, with no preparation, no documentation (charts etc), no knowledge of terrain etc. Not that it is very dangerous, but it has a higher risk than normal, and aviation is about reducing risks. This is why the industry dont want emergencies on a daily basis, cause it will, sooner or later, lead to accidents.

    Nothing special about this. Ppl get denied boarding for medical reasons every day, all over the world. Also in my company. I most cases because of lack of a doctors letter.
    But it is usually resolved at the gate, at the latest.

    Also, I think she might be a trouble maker… Her video dont show what happened before she was escorted out. Why did the security need to come? Hmmm

  11. The level of stupidity illustrated in most of these comments is sickening.

    Every time I fly I watch elderly passengers boarded early, many in wheelchairs, with walkers or canes. They often have oxygen canisters or other medical equipment. I see the morbidly obese stuff themselves into coach seats. I watch small children and babies who could easily choke on food or a trinket. None of them could evacuate the plane efficiently or assist anyone else in an evacuation and are at equivalent risk for inflight health/medical incidents. Yet they are boarded without question.

    A person with a chronic medical condition is far more able to assess their fitness to fly than someone merely at high risk due to their age or physical condition. These commenters have as much understanding of cancer as the gate agent. If they are really concerned about the integrity of the flight, maybe they should ask grandma whether she’s due for a heart attack in the next five hours.

  12. I feel for the woman and her family, and I think this is a horrible and embarrassing situation for them. On Alaska’s part this definitely wasn’t the best way to handle a situation like this. But I think when you tell FAs that you have medical issues, and plus you are in an emotionally unstable state as described by SF1K, it is reasonable to deny her from flying.

    I think dispatch definitely prepares airport charts for possible diversion, and the crew probably won’t lose their situation awareness or skip briefing or any SOP for a medical emergency.

  13. It is amazing to me when Flight Attendants take it on themselves to play triage nurse. I had an incident where my family was returning from an international flight. My 3 year old had gotten horribly bitten by mosquitoes at the beginning of the trip and itching had left her with several little sores. On the last leg of our return flight the FA approached me and asked if the child was ill. I explained about the mosquito bites but apparently she didn’t believe me. She talked to the captain, and reported the child as ill. As soon as we landed the captain came on over the intercom asking everyone to stay seated as they needed to allow a ill passenger to disembark first for evaluation. As you can imagine we got quite the nasty stares as we were escorted up the isle and out of the plane. We were met by what appeared to be an EMT crew pushing a wheelchair. My daughter proceeded to climb all over the wheelchair with the energy only a 3 year old could have following 20+ hours of flight. The EMTs asked us a couple confused questions, verified that we hadn’t requested assistance and sent us on our way. In our case it turned out fine, but it makes me wonder what the FA really was trying to accomplish with such a stunt.

  14. The poor form of the airline’s is that, having made the decision that their was a medical issue that needed more scrutiny (and therefore boarding was denied) somehow that family were boarded (which may or may not have been the direct fault of airline staff), and then had to be de-planed. Really messy.

    That said, when you have a known serious medical condition, look so unwell that you attract the attention of otherwise very busy airline staff, and haven’t organised a medical clearance letter from your own doctor before heading to the airport, this sort of thing will happen. She didn’t get offloaded just because she had cancer, she got offloaded because she clearly looked unwell, and the airport doctor didn’t consider her fit to fly.

    This was a flight, after all, that would spend hours over the water without a close airport to divert to in case of sudden medical emergency. These things have to be considered.

    The lady said she had cancer so she clearly was aware she had a health issue, and clearly presented at the airport in a state of ill health (the most critical issue). It seems she gave no consideration to the fact that this would be a red flag, and could have readily got an OK to fly letter from her doctor beforehand or even put the airport medical service in touch with her treating doctor to consult over her fitness to flight if she had stopped to think about it.

    As someone with a serious medical condition myself I can tell you just can’t go the airport without doing a fair amount of preparation and pre-planning (you just can’t pretend you don’t have a problem, you have to think ahead). I would hope, if I had lost the plot like this lady had, that an airline would stop me doing something reckless.

  15. Airlines will always try to take steps to reduce the risk to a traveler, even if that sometimes seems contrary to the passenger’s immediate interests. When an airline asks for a doctor’s note or similar for what may appear to be a very minor issue, it is not because the airline wants to cause a hassle but rather because it is better to be safe than sorry.

    I had a sad experience a few years ago when working for a previous airline employer. A lady had been diagnosed with terminal cancer while on a visit to the UK and had been deemed unfit to travel. Her family however wanted her to return to her home country to die rather than in the UK as she already held a return air ticket and they could not afford to ship the body back as cargo. As the airline, we required a doctor’s note clearing her for travel. This was provided, and our staff even called the number on the doctor’s letterhead to confirm that everything was in order and to verify any special handling instructions.

    On the day of departure, the lady seemed a bit disoriented but keeping in mind the doctor’s clearance and her husband’s advice that she had taken a sedative, was cleared to travel. Once airborne, she was fine initially and even ate the first meal before going to sleep and covering herself with a blanket. Sometime during the night she had difficulty breathing and passed away. Her husband actually noticed her breathing difficulties but declined to notify the crew as he was afraid we would divert and cause additional costs to the family. When the crew came around to do compliance checks at top of descent, he calmly stated that she had died about 3 hours earlier.

    On arrival, the matter was passed on to the local police who asked the husband to give a statement. While left unattended to complete his statement, he fled the police station. The body was subsequently claimed by the brother of the deceased. When attempting to contact the doctor named on the letterhead to advise of the death, it turns out that the letter was a forgery using a modified telephone number on a genuine NHS letterhead – set up by the husband.

    Local police declined to prosecute as they claimed the matter was out of their jurisdiction as the death had occurred prior to entering their airspace. The file was passed to CPS in the UK but they also declined to prosecute as all parties were non-UK citizens/residents and the actual death occurred outside the UK. Basically the guy got away with murder.

    So while this kind of situation is unfortunate, there is always a reason for actions taken and those reasons may not always be self evident.

  16. @Sean M: that is hardly “murder” (you said the husband got away with murder). The passenger in your case clearly died without the husband being involved, and was a terminal case. I actually don’t see how diverting the plane and prolonging her life for another week would have been better for anybody — clearly this is what she wanted.
    But yes, an airline should not let sick people (who say they are feeling unwell) on the plane without a doctor’s note. It’s sad when that makes an already terrible situation (cancer) even worse.

  17. @Adam P

    It’s a shame you couldn’t convey your opinion without being insulting , especially when the some of the examples you have have NOTHING to do with a medical issue that can cause the plane to divert for a potential emergency landing.

    Elderly passengers being taken to the boarding area because they may have a slight mobility issue is a courtesy. The same as allowing the travels with small children to pre-board because it might take them a few more minutes to get organized. With that being said, as a precaution- guess where these folks won’t be sitting…in an emergency exit row.

    As to the medical devices, you mentioned being brought on board..try showing up to the airport with your own oxygen container that you intend to take on an aircraft. A medical oxygen service needs to be prearrange, usually with at least 48 hours notice and requires a fee being paid.

    So even the examples that YOU provided dictate that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

    What exactly is so offensive to you about the suggestion that a noticeably ill person come prepared with a doctors note that clears them for travel. especially when it’s pretty much an established medical protocol?

  18. @augias

    I agree with you, while @Sean M interesting and sad experience about a passenger who forged a doctors note so his terminally ill wife could travel back to their country of origin, where she was expected to die shortly after is not murder. Her death was inevitable, it’s also hard to determine traveling by air hastened her death.

  19. “Egan, the Alaska Airlines spokeswoman, acknowledged that the carrier’s policy when someone has a medical issue is to call MedLink, a group of ER nurses and doctors. The idea, she explained, is that “it is better to address medical issues or concerns on the ground rather than in the air, especially on flights to or from Hawaii” — which in that case would last five-plus hours over open ocean.”

    So lets get a few things correct, Medlink is based here in Phoenix at Banner – University Medical Center. It is staffed with ER Physicians I personally know many of them that work there, I highly doubt that Alaska Employee called Medlink about this. since the Physicians would need information to make a call in which to denied boarding. I’m all about keeping people safe, but when you make judgement calls like this, that isn’t warranted it ends up costing the airlines a lot of money…

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