American Airlines lost Stephanie Mueller’s mom. They found her eventually, but Mueller wants more than an apology. She’s determined to make sure this never happens to someone else’s mother.
By now, you can see the title of this feature is Case Dismissed! — and while the airline may have dismissed her case, I haven’t.
“My mother has had dementia related to what we believe to be Alzheimer’s for several years and is at the point where she isn’t able to travel alone,” Mueller explains. “I recently planned to have her visit me for a weekend so she could spend time with me and her granddaughter while she still recognizes us.”
Mueller’s mom can still remember the basics, like where to meet her daughter when she arrives at the airport.
“I called American Airlines after I booked her flight and asked if I could arrange to go through security in Washington to pick her up at the gate, and also asked if my dad could get through security as well when he took her to the airport in Greensboro, N.C.,” she says.
I was told by “special services” with American that they could arrange a wheelchair for her.
I explained that physically she is still fine and that she would be likely to get upset if they tried to put her in a wheelchair. She is aware that she is losing her memory and gets easily agitated if she has a sense that people are treating her as an invalid.
I was then assured that my dad and I would be able to get a pass for security so that we could make sure she was accompanied while in the airport.
I was also told that if for some reason they weren’t able to locate us when she arrived at the airport, someone from the airline would escort her to baggage claim or the curb and be with her until one of us picked her up.
Problem solved, right? Not really.
I’ll let her explain what happened next:
On the night she flew into Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA), I arrived over an hour early and got the pass to go through security. I then waited where they said she would arrive, and let the staff there know that I was waiting for my mom who had dementia.
I saw on my phone that her flight had arrived, but was told that it would take a while for someone to get her, since she was on a small plane that required a bus to get back to the terminal.
After watching passenger after passenger get off, I asked again and was finally told a half hour after the plane landed that they didn’t know where she was. Apparently someone had finally gone to retrieve her from the plane but at that point, the plane was empty.
I could not believe that they had lost her.
I also couldn’t believe that they didn’t seem too phased by it. One of the people from the gate walked with me to the police to let them know that she was missing, then they told me to go to the baggage claim area to see if she was there.
I then went to the American office at baggage claim, where they had no idea what I was talking about and made me wait while they tried to locate on a walkie talkie the woman who was supposed to have looked for my mom on the plane.
Mueller enlisted the help of airport police to launch a search party for her mother and eventually found her walking around the baggage area. Her mother said she was about to call a cab to get a ride home, “which would have been terrifying, since she doesn’t remember my address and doesn’t know how to direct a cab there,” says Mueller.
So what does she want?
“For American Airlines to investigate why this happened to my mom and take steps to ensure it doesn’t happen with other travelers,” she says. “They need to either stop saying they are able to provide direct special services assistance to travelers with dementia who are traveling unaccompanied, or provide more training and oversight to ensure that their employees do, in fact, provide the service in a compassionate, dependable and responsible way.”
That’s not unreasonable.
I had a private conversation with my American Airlines contact. Turns out both of us have elderly relatives with dementia, and we agreed that we would never let them travel alone. But Mueller sought — and received — assurances that American could handle her mother. That’s a problem. Either you can handle a passenger with special needs, or you can’t.
American promised to investigate. And it did — kind of. Mueller reported back with the following update:
A representative from customer service contacted me shortly after you reached out to them and told me they were following up on my complaint.
They then sent me an email saying they had done an investigation and concluded they didn’t do anything wrong since they are required to provide assistance only if the passenger requests it.
It seems to me that should rule out helping anyone with a mental disability or illness, since those passengers will most likely not be able to ask for assistance.
They did also say that they are taking my feedback and working with their staff in D.C. and Greensboro to try and make sure what happened to my mom doesn’t happen again.
That’s good news. Thanks, American. And Stephanie, next time mom needs to go somewhere, please ask someone to go with her.