When New Jersey mom of four Elit Kirschenbaum boarded a December 30 flight home after her family vacation in the Dominican Republic, she seated her youngest daughter Ivy on her lap as usual, she told ABC News.
What followed was an ordeal with a flight attendant that Kirschenbaum says left her family "humiliated." The airline has since issued an apology for the incident, but the mom still thinks there's a lesson to be learned about the way transit companies treat passengers with special needs.
Three-year-old Ivy has Spastic Quadriplegic Cerebral Palsy as the result of a stroke she suffered in utero. Because of her condition, the little girl physically cannot sit up on her own and rests on her parents' laps during flights.
On this particular United Airlines flight from Punta Cana to Newark, however, one flight attendant reportedly refused to allow the family's seating arrangement. In a Tumblr post about the ordeal, Kirschenbaum claims that she explained to the employee that her daughter has special needs and cannot hold herself up in a chair. The flight attendant continued to insist that Ivy sit in her own seat alone, the mom recalls.
Elit Kirschenbaum with her daughter Ivy on NBC New York
In the Tumblr post, Kirschenbaum explains that her family has flown with Ivy in their laps many times and have never had a problem, until this incident. She writes:
This flight attendant returned to her co-workers and began to argue with them. She returned to argue with us. She kept quoting FAA regulations. She brought up members of the staff from the airport, including several baggage handlers who spoke very limited English, to lecture us about seating despite the fact that we were clearly Americans and spoke little to no Spanish. She insisted on creating a scene. The remaining 3 flight attendants pleaded our case, in fact one was in tears, but this one attendant dug her heels in and wouldn’t budge.
The FAA regulation the flight attendant cited was a mandate that all passengers over the age of 24 months must sit in their own seats for taxi, takeoff, and landing. But as Kirschenbaum told ABC News, "Unfortunately, life doesn't play by the rules sometimes." In an interview with The Washington Post, the mom added that Ivy "developmentally, is at six months."
Ultimately, Kirschenbaum's husband reached a compromise with the pilot, who allowed Ivy to lay across her seat and place her head in her father's lap for takeoff and landing.
Still, the damage was done. "My family was humiliated in front of a full flight of passengers," the mom wrote on Tumblr, noting that the ordeal also caused the flight to take off almost an hour late.
After Kirschenbaum shared her story on her Tumblr page, people rallied around the family on Twitter with the hashtag #UnitedWithIvy. The mom had interviews with several media outlets, including ABC News, which also printed a statement from a United Airlines spokesperson. Part of the statement read, "The parents, who were ticketed in first class, wanted to hold the child in their lap rather than have the child take the seat they'd purchased for her in economy."
This initial statement upset Kirschenbaum, who told The Washington Post that she subsequently faced backlash from social media commenters who accused her of using her daughter with special needs to "game the system" for first class seating. The mom added that she and her husband had purchased the tickets with frequent-flyer miles and were only later assigned the business class seats at the airport, at which point they decided to switch with other family members so that they could sit by their young children.
A spokesperson from United also reached out to apologize to the Kirschenbaums personally and has had "several nice phone conversations" with the family, the airline told The Huffington Post. In an interview with NBC New York, the parents stated that they weren't aware that FAA "lap children" regulations don't make exceptions for kids with special needs, but now that they are, they plan to purchase a safety seat with additional head support for Ivy to use on future flights.
While Kirschenbaum was glad to receive an apology from United and bears no ill-will toward the company, the mom thinks that airlines need to work on their procedures when it comes to people with special needs. "I want them to recognize that not everyone fits the same mold,” Kirschenbaum told The Washington Post. “You need to put humanity into your decision-making. You need to put compassion into your decision-making.”
And as for her family, the mom told NBC New York, "the lesson I hope my own children get out of it is that I will always stand beside them."