Horizon Air president apologizes to mistreated passenger

Over the weekend, a Bend, Ore., man took to Facebook to describe the incivility he alleged was inflicted on a fellow passenger on an Horizon Air flight out of Oregon’s Redmond Municipal Airport.

Cameron Clark witnessed what he described on Facebook as “the worst of humanity” when airline staff on duty appeared to ignore and refuse special assistance to a couple he thought was “disabled/mentally and physically challenged.”

Clark estimated the couple to be in their 70s and said that the man later told him he had late-stage Parkinson’s disease, that his companion had MS and that he was trying to get to Bellingham, Wash., to see his daughter.

“He had a hard time walking,” Clark wrote on Facebook, “No one offered him a wheelchair or asked how they could be helpful. He stumbled off toward the safety inspection line. Predictably, he didn’t understand/comprehend their restriction of his luggage, and got stuck in security.”

Throughout the weekend, Clark’s Facebook post created a flurry of negative and outraged comments, which Alaska Airlines responded to with a series of Facebook posts of its own.

I spoke with Alaska Airlines spokesperson Paul McElroy on Monday morning and he told me that while the passenger did not get on his Friday flight, he did fly Saturday and is visiting with his daughter at an alternate location. McElroy said the airline refunded the passenger’s initial ticket price and provided complimentary round-trip transportation for his trip.

“There are things we should have done better,” said McElroy, who added that the president of Horizon Airlines was preparing a post to that effect. (Regional airline Horizon Air and Alaska Airlines are both owned by the Alaska Air Group, which is based in Seattle.)

Coincidentally, on Monday the airline was meeting with Eric Lipp, the executive director of Open Doors Organization, an independent disability advocacy group. “We’re going to leverage their visit and ask them to help us review what we did with this customer to see if we could have done better,” McElroy said.

Lipp said there are laws to help passengers with disabilities and extra services that airlines can and are willing to provide. “But the law says the passenger has to self-identify,” said Lipp. “Otherwise, it’s a puzzle. The breakdown here is that the passenger didn’t self-identify and the airline didn’t have the right codes in the system to get him services he was entitled to.”

Lipp had other advice for passengers with disabilities and much of it was rolled into the apology Horizon Air president Glenn Johnson posted on Facebook on Monday afternoon. Here’s part of that statement, which includes some helpful tips.

“…First and foremost, we’ve determined that we could and should have handled this better and I apologize to our passenger on behalf of all of us at Horizon Air and Alaska Airlines. This experience has reminded us of the importance of assisting passengers with disabilities and making sure every one of them receives the special care they may need.

The information we’ve gathered during our review will certainly improve our efforts going forward.”

…Alaska and Horizon have partnered with Open Doors Organization, an independent disability advocacy group, to review employees’ handling of the situation and suggest improvements in the airlines’ disability, awareness and sensitivity training. Eric Lipp, Open Doors Organization’s executive director, advises passengers with a disability who are traveling to:

  • Self-disclose to the airline any assistance you may need before you arrive at the airport. This could include an escort or wheelchair assistance through security, to the gate, and while boarding and exiting the plane.
  • Ask the airline if you prefer to have a personal assistant escort you to the gate. Most airlines will issue passes to personal assistants to help passengers with disabilities get to or from the gate area.
  • Plan ahead and arrive at the airport at least 90 minutes before your flight departs, which allows time to check luggage, obtain wheelchair services, get through security and board the flight.

(Part of this post first appeared in my NBC News story Witness blasts Alaska Airlines for treatment of fellow passenger.