In "The Airport," an episode of the '90s sitcom "Seinfeld," the differences between flying first class and coach are greatly exaggerated when Jerry and Elaine are forced to separate on their flight back to New York. Jerry gets to live it up with the model seated next to him in first class, while Elaine suffers miserably in the cramped quarters of coach. Airline staff cheerfully caters to Jerry's every whim; Elaine is treated like dirt.
This type of scenario pops up every so often in popular culture with hilarious results, but the underlying symbolism of what amounts to a caste system of classes is no laughing matter. Travelers who have tried both will attest to the fact that you do, indeed, get what you pay for, and in some instances, workers really do appear to look down on the coach flyers. Unless it's a really short flight, people will scrimp and save and pull out all stops in order to be seated in the much pricier section just to be treated like a human being.
Lest anyone consider this discrimination, in the eyes of the law it is not, for the simple fact that no protected group, including minorities and people with disabilities, is being singled out. Lacking the funds for an upgrade does not constitute a protected class.
The Vanderhorst family of California had plenty of money on hand Sunday to upgrade three tickets for cross-county American Airlines flight from Newark to Los Angeles to first class, but could very well have been discriminated against because of a disability. As Robert Vanderhorst has told the media, when he, wife Joan and 16-year-old son Bede, who is disabled, were about to board, airline personnel told them Bede was a "security risk" and not allowed on that flight. After protesting, the family was rebooked on a later flight, this time in coach, with a different airline. On this airplane, they were seated in the last row and no passengers were allowed to sit within two rows of them.
American Airlines' version is that the pilot had seen the boy, who is considerably pudgy and has Down syndrome, agitated and running around the gate area, so he decided that Bede was a security risk. The airline deemed him not ready to fly and rebooked the family out of concern for both the teen's and passengers' safety. Expectedly, the Vanderhorsts dispute this claim and said their child was sitting or walking around quietly in the waiting area.
The real story is probably something in between, but this whole thing calls up a gray area. The federal Air Carrier Access Act requires airlines to accommodate people with disabilities, but they can refuse to fly a passenger who might pose a safety threat. Still, airlines can't make generalizations about disabilities or prevent someone from flying just because of a disability.
Page 2 of 2 - Vanderhorst feels this is exactly what the pilot did, whether intentionally or not. He contends the guy saw Bede and came to the conclusion that his presence would disturb the other passengers in first class. This may very well be but would be difficult to prove.
The family has not decided if it will sue the airline. They should, just on principle. Whether they win, lose or settle, the case is bound to call much-needed attention to the issue of disability discrimination and the fine points surrounding it.
This also begs the question: Would the pilot have done the same if the family was seated in coach?
On the plus side, American Airlines is refunding the money the Vanderhorst put out for the upgrade.