Teen with Down Syndrome Deemed Flight Risk. Parents Fight Back

Joan and Robert Vanderhorst were planning to fly home to California with their 16-year-old son on Sunday. But before they could board their American Airlines flight from Newark airport bound for Los Angeles, they were stopped at the gate.

"We were not allowed on the plane because they saw my son and made a decision," Joan Vanderhorst told KTLA local news.

Her son, Bede, has Down Syndrome. Because of it, the airline deemed him flight risk, the Vanderhorsts claim.

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The family had traveled on dozens of flights in the past and insist their son was behaving calmly when the airline made its decision. A smartphone video of Bede, taken by his mom during the incident, shows the boy quietly playing with a baseball cap.

But American Airlines' reps painted a very different picture of the child's actions before boarding, describing him as "excitable, running around, and not acclimated to the environment."
Had their tickets been for economy seats, the Vanderhorsts believe they wouldn't have had a problem.

"This little boy had a seat in the first class area, and for some reason, they didn't want that. That wasn't acceptable," Joan told the news station.

"Asking the family to take the next flight was a decision that was made with careful consideration and that was done based on the behavior of the teen," an American Airlines representative said in a statement to Yahoo! Shine. "Our EWR customer service team, as well as the crew, worked with the Vanderhorst family to try and get Bede comfortable. Unfortunately, the crew determined he was still agitated, and at that point the Vanderhorsts were asked to take an alternate flight."


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The family was soon transferred to another flight on United Airlines. This time, their first class upgrade wasn't applied. Now the family plans to sue the airline for discrimination and violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which was expanded to include airline regulations in 2009.

For the past few years, the friendly skies have gotten a reputation for being unfriendly to kids. Last year, Malaysia Airlines introduced kids-free first class flights, prompting backlash from parenting communities. Individual stories of kids being labeled flight risks have made headlines and fanned the flames of controversy. In June, a Washington man claimed he was booted from an Alaska Airlines flight after his 3-year-old wouldn't stop crying. Back in March, a family claimed they were booted from a JetBlue flight because their 2-year-old was having a meltdown just before takeoff.


As airline safety continues to ramp up, the "flight risk" label has no age limit. Kids are expected to abide by the same standards of conduct as adults do, despite their level of maturity. Many parents will argue those standards don't take into account the unpredictability young kids. For special needs kids, age is all relative. Bede may be 16, but his parents claim his condition means he behaves like a "4 or 5 year old."

In its defense, American Airlines maintains it was protecting the safety of its other passengers. In fairness, when you're hurtling through the sky in a tube, airlines' efforts to prevent unregulated chaos-or the potential for it-seems like a rational position. But can a child with special needs really put an entire flight in jeopardy? And should the safety of many override compassion for a few?

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