United just can’t seem to stay out of the spotlight…

Is it bad that I almost feel sorry for United? Check out this blog post by some person in San Francisco that was also picked up by The Consumerist.

Long story short (and yes, this is a very, very, very long, drawn out story), a disabled lady was on a United flight from Seattle to San Francisco last week and was less than pleased with the treatment she received. The main gripe is that the flight attendant refused to store her carry-on for her and was rude about it. To add insult to injury the supervisor she spoke to upon landing wasn’t exactly apologetic.

So first let me get this out of the way: I’m betting the flight attendant and most of the other customer service agents she dealt with were rude. That part of the story I totally believe, and that’s what she deserves an apology for. However, this isn’t something that the American Disabilities Association needs to get involved with, in my opinion.

First of all let’s talk a bit about United’s policy when it comes to flight attendant and carry-on bags, as there seem to be quite a bit of confusion over this. While I’m not looking at the flight attendant manual right now, I have seen the flight attendant manual as it addresses this, and I’ve also discussed this issue with more than one onboard supervisor. The United policy is that flight attendants are supposed to assist passengers with stowing bags. To most flight attendants that’s interpreted as directing passengers towards open overhead bin space, and if you’re really lucky, maybe the flight attendant will just give a bit of a push of your bag with one hand. Of course many flight attendants go above and beyond and are more than happy to assist anyone that looks like they might need help.

Nonetheless the policy is open to interpretation, and based on the conversation I had with an onboard supervisor a while back, a flight attendant isn’t breaking any rules by not giving a hand. The issue comes down to liability, and many flight attendants believe they would not be covered if they had an injury resulting from stowing a bag for someone. And I think by almost any interpretation of this, there’s a difference between assisting someone and doing something for them.

At the same it wouldn’t have killed the flight attendant to make a “one time exception” instead of using the “if I had to do that for everyone” excuse which is all too common in customer (dis)service.

All that being said, the passenger deserves a bit of blame here too. First I have to wonder how she transported the bag from the curb all the way to the gate. Was it on her lap? Was the person pushing her wheelchair pulling that as well? More importantly, if she’s really that disabled, it sounds to me like she should be checking her bags. I have a hard time feeling sorry for her if she had a 22″ carry-on stuffed to the brim.

Next, she mentioned how she was in extreme pain due to the bag constantly hitting her as passengers walked by. What the hell am I missing here? Why didn’t she ask one of those passengers to help her instead of sitting there and taking a beating? I’m assuming nobody realized she was disabled based on her just sitting there and they thought she was just crazy for keeping her bag in the aisle. Sounds like she almost wanted to get injured.

Anyway, this all seems a bit dramatic to me. United could have definitely handled the situation better, but I don’t think anyone’s rights were violated or the flight attendant should get any punishment for not stowing the bag for the lady. The fact that she was rude is a completely different story.

Hopefully United will learn from this by clarifying the term “assisting passengers.”

What do you folks think?

Filed Under: Media, United
  1. I’ve overheard a passenger asked an FA to “assist” with getting the bag in the overhead bins and the answer from the FA was “that’s not my job”. I hope UA will clarify their policy because that’s just plain rude and unacceptable.

  2. Finally some sense… I have to say I was shocked by the reaction of FTers and how many of them immediately sided with the pax.

  3. I had a similar reaction to you.

    This was a horrible situation, I feel it could and should have been avoided, but I don’t see how United is the horrible evil airline here. She should not have been bringing the bag on as a carry-on.

    Does United (or any other airline) free checked luggage for disabled passengers? If not, perhaps they should consider doing so. It would ensure that this type of situation never happened again.

  4. If you cannot lift it over your head, it probably needs to be checked. Helping passengers with bags only encourages bad behavior.

  5. I believe that UA may have been able to handle thr situation better, but also the passenger should stop complaining.

    My mom was a former FA for AA, and she always went above and beyond to help passengers, but she says she had friends who strained back muscles by lifting severely overweight bags, so I can see why the FA did not want to get involved.

    The ADA getting involved is totally over the top. They’re just looking for attention. I think that UA walks away with the win here, as they didn’t disobey airline policy, but could have been more helpful. The passengers story doesn’t add up at all.

  6. So what if its not in the manual, in a situation like this, we have to ask ourselves, what would Singapore airlines or Cathy Pacific do? One thing is for sure, they certainly wouldn’t allow something like this to get to national news. Obviously there are always two sides to each story, and I won’t be surprised if the passenger in questions turns out to be some idiot with a tiny limp, milking the “disability” but so what if that’s the case, last time i checked, flight attendants signed up knowing they would be dealing with all kinds of crazies.

  7. I think there should be a pretty firm policy of “if you can’t lift your bag it’s too big/heavy for carry-on” disabled or not.
    I’m pretty sure that Air Canada has a policy that FA’s aren’t required to lift baggage for pax due to injury issues.

  8. I’m not a lawyer, but my understanding of the ADA (and while not relevant here since this took place at SEA, the California state equivalent) require that enterprises make “reasonable accommodations” for their employees. I do not know if this standard also applies to customers (but, I suspect that it does.)

    IF that’s the case, having and FA assist with loading this bag, or that of an 80 year old women is certainly what I’d expect.

    I agree that the blog posting is a rant and incredibly screechy, but at the end of the day the customer’s request is certainly not outrageous.

    I think the blogger should simply carry and use a cane — a simple aid like that would both help with the infirmity and send an unambiguous signal that she is indeed disabled.

    We should all get back in the habit of erring on the side of of basic human decency and kindness. No contract should excuse rudeness.

  9. This has been discussed numerous times on FT – ADA doesn’t actually apply aboard the aircraft. There’s a different governing rule anyway.

  10. Thanks for the picture, Sean.

    But I have to wonder: Is that a really SMALL rollerboard or a really BIG cat?!?

  11. This is exactly how one person who is a total B— can cause all kinds of trouble for others. This airline waitress is completely and totally at fault. This pax should have been preboarded and then the waitress could have found someone other than herself to lift the bag into the overhead. A pilot, a provisioner, a ramper, etc.

    For those saying she should have checked the bag if she was unable to put it in the overhead herself, what if it was uncovered items, ie a camera, medication, a computer, or 10,000 other things that United wouldn’t have reimbursed her for if the lost it.

    If this woman truely is disabled in any sense of the word, this waitress should be fired. She didn’t have to lift the bag herself, but she surely could have had someone else do it or even stowed it somewhere else for her, and she didn’t have to be rude.

  12. Left Seater,

    You are obviously a friend/troll of the original complainer. No one who regularly reads this blog would refer to a flight attendant as a waitress.

    I agree that “evilpuppy” was probably treated a little harshly and situation could have been handled better but I have suspicion that the facts have been twisted. Evilpuppy lost all credibility when she stated that the CSR said “I am NOT sorry.” She may not have apologized but I can’t believe any supervisor would use those specific words.

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