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Disabled Woman Says United Flight Attendants No Help

April 15, 2010 | Posted in: Airfare News,Ask Rick,Travel Safety,United

disabled united flight attendants

UPDATE: United has apologized.

A strange and awful story reported on Consumerist – awful, if true (and I have no reason to believe it’s a hoax or anything of that nature – there are too many details that could be checked, it seems to me – but we are trying to learn more). It’s certainly creating a lot of buzz.

And I think it’s worth talking about, even though the details are sketchy – because the needs of the disabled just don’t often get a lot of thought from many of us.

Anyway, the story concerns a recent blog post by a self-described “disabled woman” with a spinal injury, who identifies herself as “Rachel D.” She writes that, on a recent United flight, she couldn’t lift her carryon bag into the overhead bin - and asked a flight attendant for help.

She claims this was the flight attendant’s chilly response:

“If I helped everyone do that all day then MY back would be killing me by the end of the day!” I asked her how I was supposed to get my luggage stowed and her answer was: “You’ll just have to wait for someone from your row to come back here and ask them to give you a hand.” When I asked what would happen if no one would, her response to me was: “Well, normally a passenger is around to overhear something like this and they’ll offer to help with it on their own. You’ll just have to ask someone when they get back here.”

Keep reading – it doesn’t get better…

After the flight, the disabled woman said she spoke to a United customer service supervisor and was told the following:

“I won’t apologize for [the flight attendant's] actions,” according to the author’s account of her conversation with the supervisor, “and I’m not sorry for what happened to you. It’s not in our contract to assist passengers with their luggage and we reserve the right to refuse assistance to anyone. If that’s what you need, then perhaps in the future, you should make other travel arrangements.”

Now, pay attention here: on United’s website, under “Mobility Assistance” it states that “Once passengers are onboard the aircraft, our flight attendants can help with stowing and retrieving carry-on items…”

Whether one has to sign-up for mobility assistance and/or pay for it, I cannot determine at this time – nor whether the disabled woman in this story opted for this service.

I want to be fair to both sides, but have had little luck getting responses. I tried to emailing the disabled woman, but the only response I got was that “email delivery is delayed” and I imagine her inbox has been inundated

Meanwhile, United’s spokesperson didn’t respond to a detailed email asking about this. However, I did see a Twitter message from @UnitedAirlines  that seemed to reference the situation; it said, “We are deeply concerned, talking w/the customer today & ensuring the employee issues are addressed.” – and I mentioned this tweet in a second email to United asking for any information and United did respond but this is all they wrote: “That tweet is accurate.”

Now here is the latest from the disabled woman’s blog post (no date is mentioned):

“Just so I can keep all of you in the loop for what’s going on, United contacted me and has asked me to speak with them ‘regarding the issues I’ve raised.’ It’s a start and I’m crossing my fingers that the outcome is a positive one, so wish me luck in serving all my fellow disabled folks!”

When and if we learn more about this matter, we’ll be sure to pass it along. And here’s hoping for a happy ending.

17 Responses to “Disabled Woman Says United Flight Attendants No Help”

  1. Wow, I have never heard of anyone in the customer service industry saying flat out ‘I am not sorry for what happened to you.’

    I wonder if they record service calls because that rep needs to be let go. Even if you are giving bad news, you *always* apologize for the inconvenience.

    Without knowing the credibility of the passenger, I am curious if she is projecting how she felt she was being treated instead of quoting the actual conversation.

  2. Rick Seaney says:


    There are a lot of unanswered questions here – but if I learn more, I will share.


  3. A. Tsai says:

    Bad customer service, but in the end I would have to side with the flight attendants. Throwing out their backs is not in their job description, and that is becoming an increasing hazard with the increasing volumes of (inappropriate) luggage being carried on board these days. Maybe United should just delete the “Mobility Assistance” part on their web page and be done with it.

  4. Rick Seaney says:

    A. Tsai,

    Whether the airline should get rid of their “Mobility Assistance” policy isn’t really the point, I don’t think – because, the policy IS in fact on United’s website and the story suggests United employees are not following it.


  5. Esko Woudenberg says:

    I wonder if maybe at the time of the initial request for assistance maybe the passenger did not state their disability or status? Many disabled people are hard to identify simply by looking at them.
    Granted, having to state that you are disabled and need a little extra help might not be “politically correct” and is probably considered needlessly humiliating someone but also strikes me as being practical.

  6. Rick Seaney says:


    You may be on to something – the woman in question states she is 29 years old, and I think I read that she does not “look disabled”. I’m trying to find out if she perhaps should have made some sort of formal request for assistance, but I don’t know the answer to that yet.


  7. Hank says:

    Just my opinion …. If you can’t lift your luggage into the overhead compartment ….. check it! I’ve seen too many people with overstuffed, overweight carry-ons who are not physically able to lift the luggage above their head. Though I have helped plenty of folks with their luggage, as I am stowing it away, I am thinking, geeze, this person is irresponsible.

  8. Rick Seaney says:


    I understand where you’re coming from – but then there’s the whole waiting-around-for-the-carousel ordeal, which I’m told can be truly an ordeal for some with disabilities, who might not be able to get wheelchair assistance.

    I would be delighted to hear from anyone with first-person experience in such a situation.


  9. Mary Anne says:

    First, I’ve been there, done that, and most of the T-shirts I got are nice. 29 years as an amputee, below knee. Mostly friendly, helpful, positive people. That said: last trip on Delta was horrid! They moved my seat from more reclinable due to wheelchair necessity between planes–”policy”. Just because I can’t run 2 miles thru an unfamiliar airport doesn’t mean I can’t (or won’t!) take charge of emergency exit procedures. I read the requirements before booking that seat. Who was in my original seat? A kid with pimples, no common sense, nor manners! Same flight, I missed my connection home because the guy from some French speaking place in the Carribean refused to take me to the proper gate, instead going the opposite direction and then stood around the check in desk to ask what to do! They told him “go to that gate”, but he was so slow the plane’s door was closed when we got there. I sat in Atlanta airport for 4+ hours, finally got to my home airport, and booked onto the hotel across the street because midnight on a day that started at 6 a.m. was just too damn late to drive safely, for me or others on the road with me. Oh, the checking girl did finally begrudge me a “meal voucher” ($7) which got a salad at Burger King…Period!
    People said, “Call corporate, get ‘em to comp you a flight!” My response?
    “Why on earth would I ever want to fly Delta again?!? Not even for FREE!!!”
    I have worked in customer service industries, including medicine. This ain’t customer service; it is DIS-service! Delta won’t be dissin’ me again…
    Oh, and if the woman in question was back in coach before any others it’s because she HAD identified herself as special needs–first on, last off is policy with most airlines (and buses). Think about sitting waiting on the plane while everyone else loads over you, ride a few hours, then waiting again while everyone else unloads over you and makes that connection you just might miss!
    In today’s economy, anyone who has a job right now should be so glad to have it, they should do almost anything( legal ) to keep it. Even if it means being polite or considerate to the people who pay your wages!

  10. Rick Seaney says:

    Mary Anne,

    Thanks for writing – and I hope you saw the update: http://rickseaney.com/2010/04/18/united-to-disabled-woman-sorry-for-flight-attendant-flap/


  11. Jim Robertson says:

    How about just checking the luggage? How much lifting do you expect the attendants to do? Do you want them to be disabled? Oh you don’t? Then why would you make such a fuss over one attendant that said “enough! I can’t help everyone that chooses not to check their bags and puts my health at risk in doing so.”

  12. Rick Seaney says:


    I wrote about this topic for my latest weekly column for ABCNews.com and I addressed the issue of flight attendant injuries – which can be a real problem for many of them. Here’s that link: http://abcnews.go.com/Travel/airline-flight-attendants-disabled-passengers-carry-bags/story?id=10424577


  13. C. Gunn says:

    I too, have to side with the flight attendant. If you pack it, you should stack it. I have helped many people with their carry on bags, but now it seems that many people automatically expect, or know, that someone or a flight attendant will help them.

    Maybe if someone declares, and can prove, that they’re disabled, the bag fees should be waived.

    BTW. If you are in need of a wheelchair, then you are NOT considered an able bodied person to help in an emergency situation.

    Maybe Spirit isn’t so bad for implementing carry on fees. Maybe the boarding process won’t be such a hastle anymore.

  14. yasgin says:

    i work for an airline and do not feel you should have gotten the response you received. however, the airlines and the workers comp system DOES NOT take care of the employees if they are injured. The administrators try to delay the claims hoping the injured give up; the airlines deplete your sick leave and put you on reduced pay, even putting you on dependability (attendance) suspension while out on work comp. if you cannot return after three years, you are released (fired).
    most of us do want to help, it’s what happens if we get hurt lifting bags that makes us hesitate.

  15. Rick Seaney says:


    I appreciate your position, but hope we can all find some sort of middle ground, and soon (I’m not getting any younger!).


  16. The airlines have reduced staffing to minimums. There just aren’t enough of us to go around, especially during boarding. Not only are the bags over-stuffed and too heavy for lifting, many passengers leave carry-ons extended outside of a bin knowing that the compartment will not close. Of course, this is a NO-GO if a bin will not closed. The flight attendant is left to re-organize, remove, and re-stow these items. All this, while the company pressures the agent to close the door early. Oh, and you should know that the FAA requires that ALL carry-on luggage be stowed, AND all overhead compartments closed, before the door of the aircraft is closed. You should also know that some of the larger drop down center overhead compartments are extremely heavy and back breaking at closing/departure time. On a 777, there may be 60-80 center overstuffed back breaking bins for flight attendants to close at the last minute. I’m saving myself for that. Yep. But when possible, I will “assist” with carry-on luggage. Assist, not solo lift.

  17. Rick Seaney says:


    Thanks for the info – and, love your blog.


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