My uncle fell “face first” — why won’t American cover his medical bills?

By | June 26th, 2016

Heather Newgen’s 88-year-old uncle is a newbie to air travel. And by “newbie” I mean he’s never flown.

His recent flight from Nashville to Los Angeles didn’t go well at all, and based on her account, it may very well be his last commercial flight.

Newgen wants us to help him, and our advocates want to try. But it’s complicated. I’ll get to the details in a second. Before I do, let me state the obvious: When it comes to air travel, nothing is obvious. That includes who is responsible when something goes wrong.

Newgen and her uncle flew from Los Angeles to Nashville for her nephew’s graduation this spring. It was a meaningful trip for her uncle. In addition to attending the graduation, they planned an excursion to Memphis, Tenn.

“He’s been a huge fan of Elvis every since I can remember,” she says. “This was a once-in-a-lifetime trip for him.”

But there was a little problem. Newgen couldn’t get her uncle on her flight because she’d booked her tickets months in advance. (Insert mandatory rant about crazy airline ticket pricing here.)

“He told me he was fine to travel alone as long as he had wheelchair assistance,” she says. “He’s very active and independent so I didn’t think twice about it. So I called the airlines and had it set up to where all he had to do was ask an agent and a wheelchair would be provided.”

And it worked — at least on the outbound flight with United Airlines.

“On the way back he was on American, and unfortunately things didn’t go as smoothly,” she says.

Related story:   Help! My 12-year-old is stranded in Delta's "SkyZone"

I’ll let her pick the story up from here:

He arrived to the Nashville airport around 3:30 a.m. with my mom. I was already back in LA because he stayed a day later than me. His flight was at 5:28 a.m., so he was there in plenty of time for his flight. She asked an agent who was helping others at the kiosk and with their check on luggage for a wheelchair.

The person said she couldn’t help and to wait in line at the ticket counter, which wasn’t opened yet. There was no place to sit down so my uncle stood in line with my mom. They waited 45 minutes and the ticket counter still hadn’t opened.


While they were in line, my uncle couldn’t stand any longer and he passed out without warning. He fell face first on the ground and hit a metal pole.

Five minutes later a wheelchair was provided. But why did he have to fall to get one?

He made it home safely. He went to the ER and had several tests done. Amazingly he’s OK, but American Airlines won’t cover his medical expenses, which I believe they should.

Newgen has taken this up the chain as far as she could, contacting a supervisor to ask about her uncle’s wheelchair.

“She said my request for wheelchair assistance was in the system. She told me to email customer relations, which I have twice, but nobody has contacted me.”

Newgen says she’s horrified and wants us to help her make this right.

This one is tricky. Newgen’s uncle didn’t fall as the result of the direct negligence of an airline employee. They simply didn’t deliver a wheelchair quickly enough for him, and he fell. He could have found a seat and waited.

American did provide a wheelchair for boarding. It didn’t force him to drag himself on to the aircraft like this guy.

But wait. Is this an American issue, or is the airport in any way culpable? Nashville airport says it’s the airline, but the accident happened at the airport. If a report was filed, the medical expenses might be covered by the airport. (It appears a report wasn’t filed.)

And what about Newgen’s uncle’s own health insurance? Wouldn’t it cover the ER visits back in California?

Honestly, our advocates struggled with this one. We want to help but we aren’t sure who to turn to for assistance. And so we turn this over to you, dear readers. Should we get involved? If so, who should get the call?

Should we advocate Heather Newgen's case?

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