American Airlines claims story of passenger abandoned in wheelchair overnight is false, according to investigation

Kristine Solomon
American Airlines investigating the case of a 67-year-old woman in a wheelchair was allegedly left alone overnight at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport when her flight was canceled — and discovered she was alone for only about 45 minutes before relatives picked her up. (Photo: YouTube/CBS Chicago)
American Airlines investigating the case of a 67-year-old woman in a wheelchair was allegedly left alone overnight at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport when her flight was canceled — and discovered she was alone for only about 45 minutes before relatives picked her up. (Photo: YouTube/CBS Chicago)

The family of a 67-year-old wheelchair-bound woman who alleges she was abandoned in the airport overnight on Friday after her American Airlines flight from Chicago to Detroit was canceled might have some explaining to do. The airline told Yahoo Lifestyle security camera footage shows the woman was left alone for less than an hour before family members picked her up.

On Monday, Yahoo Lifestyle reported that Olimpia Warsaw was set to fly home from her ex-husband’s funeral when her son, Claude Coltea, wheeled her to her gate, checked that her flight was on time and headed off to catch a later flight of his own. Coltea said his mother has limited mobility, diabetes, and Parkinson’s disease, so he first made sure she was in good hands. He told CBS News that the gate agent said to him, “All’s fine. We’ll take good care of your mom.”

Despite the fact that Warsaw’s luggage had already been lost by the airline, according to Coltea, he trusted the gate agent and went on his way. But the family claims Warsaw’s flight ended up getting canceled, and an airport worker who was assigned to help the passenger simply wheeled her to the front of Chicago O’Hare International Airport and left her unattended overnight — until concerned family members demanded the airport find her.

“I was scared to death, and I don’t get scared of anything,” Warsaw told local Detroit news station WXYZ. “Here I am all by myself. Nobody would bother to help me.” Another family member, Julian Coltea, told CBS Chicago, “She actually had to find a random passenger to help her out just to go to the bathroom because the porters had already left for the night.”

American Airlines later apologized to the family, saying, in part, “This is not the level of service we aspire to provide to our customers, and we apologize to Ms. Warsaw and her family for letting them down.” The airline refunded the ticket and vowed to launch an investigation into the incident. They followed through, and what they uncovered came as a shock.

The airline shared with Yahoo Lifestyle a timeline of events captured on video inside the airport Friday night, which they say prove Warsaw was taken care of for an hour after the flight was canceled — and was left alone for just 45 minutes before relatives picked her up.

According to American Airlines’ timelines, at 8:31 p.m. Central Time, Warsaw is seen checking into American Airlines Flight 3155 to Detroit and checking two bags. At 9:42 p.m. she boards the flight, but at 11:14 p.m the airplane returns to the gate due to a maintenance issue. At 11:21 p.m. the flight is canceled, and a minute later Warsaw is rebooked for an early flight the next morning.

A wheelchair attendant picks up Warsaw at 11:32 p.m., according to the timeline, and is seen again on video attending to the passenger at 12:06 a.m. Then at 12:10 a.m., the attendant places a call to Coltea’s cell phone, and is on the phone for six minutes, according to the airline’s call log. He is told a relative is on the way to pick up the passenger. At 12:30 p.m. the attendant wheels Warsaw to the upper level and leaves her there, as described in the previous account. Warsaw is seen using her own walker to exit the airport at 12:32 a.m. for a smoke break, returning seven minutes later.

According to call logs, Coltea contacted American Airlines’ reservations line at 1:00 a.m. to rebook his mother’s flight, changing it to a 1:40 p.m. flight — possibly so his mother could get some sleep. At 1:13 a.m., a man and a woman — relatives of Warsaw — are seen arriving in an SUV. The woman finally meets with Warsaw, according to what’s captured on camera, at 1:46 a.m. The relative is then seen taking a picture of Warsaw in her wheelchair before walking to a TSA checkpoint. After a brief interaction with an officer, she is seen wheeling Warsaw out to a waiting SUV, where the man helps both women in. The vehicle drives off at 1:53 a.m.

An American Airlines spokesperson confirmed to Yahoo Lifestyle, “As you can see … approximately 45 minutes elapsed between the time the wheelchair attendant left and someone came to pick up the passenger.” The airline spokesperson said that although Warsaw was not abandoned overnight as her family described, “We are still concerned about the time she was left — from 12:30 a.m. until the family member arrived at the airport at 1:13 a.m. CT.” American Airlines has declined to release the video footage.

In the meantime, Yahoo Lifestyle has reached out to both Claude and Julian Coltea for comment and will update this post when we hear back.

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