Controversy Erupts Over Mother of Child With Special Needs Who Started Twitter Campaign Against United

Laura Begley Bloom
·Editor-in-Chief
united unitedwithivy special needs controversy
united unitedwithivy special needs controversy

The family of Elit Kirschenbaum, who complained that United Airlines wouldn’t let her special-needs daughter travel on her lap (Photo: Courtesy of ABC News)

Elit Kirschenbaum, the mother of a 3-year-old special-needs child, started a Twitter campaign against United Airlines, after a flight attendant wouldn’t let her daughter sit in her lap for takeoff and landing on a Dec. 30 flight from Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, to Newark, New Jersey. The flight was delayed for an hour while the family argued with the airline crew. Kirschenbaum claims her daughter Ivy — a stroke survivor with Spastic Quadriplegic Cerebral Palsy, who is not able to sit up on her own was humiliated by the flight attendant’s treatment.

United has since apologized and Kirschenbaum has received an avalanche of online support via the hashtag #UnitedWithIvy. “Such a disappointing story. This flight attendant needs to be punished,” Tiffany Willburn wrote on twitter. “I also left #united airlines due to their poor treatment of special needs,” tweeted Shari Thurow.

Even the socialite Lee Radziwill, sister of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, had something to say on Twitter: “Shame on United Airlines! Insensitive and cruel. #UnitedWithIvy.”

But there has also been a backlash against the Short Hills, New Jersey, mother of four, who had purchased first-class tickets for herself and husband. They bought their daughter Ivy a ticket in coach class.

“Why did parents buy seats in economy for child, and First Class for themselves?” tweeted Chris LaPenta. “No need for an apology.”

Some critics weren’t as kind:

#UnitedWithIvy family owes an apology to the other passengers,” Ron Silva wrote on Twitter. “Send dad to economy for take off & landing. Plane seat bigger than car seat.”

“New headline: "Incredibly Self-Centered Family - None Would Trade Seat In Economy For Special Needs Kid,” tweeted Chris G.

And one passenger on the flight posted her experience on Twitter. “I was on this #unitedwithivy flight and witnessed the entire debacle?! In this situation the family did not comply with airline n FAA rules,” wrote Ms Tee. “Myself and several other passengers with connections to Europe missed our flights. We should be given an apology from #unitedwithivy.”

Related: Dog Abandoned on Rainy Tarmac Sparks Twitter Outrage Against United

united unitedwithivy controversy
united unitedwithivy controversy

Safety regulations require children over 2 to have their own seat. (Thinkstock)

Aviation expert say the story brings up a number of issues, including the safety of lap children and whether parents should purchase seats separately from their children. “This is a troubling story because the facts, the truth, and what’s ‘right’ all collided,” Joe Brancatelli, of JoeSentMe.com, told Yahoo Travel. “The parents KNEW the rule, so they should not be shocked if even one flight attendant went by the book. And, of course, flight attendants should be as practical as possible whenever they can.”

Kirschenbaum and her husband were traveling with 16 members of both their immediate and extended family. But since Ivy can’t sit up on her own, Kirschenbaum wanted her daughter to be with her in first class as a lap child.

One flight attendant “insisted on creating a scene,” Kirschenbaum wrote on Tumblr. “The remaining three flight attendants pleaded our case, in fact one was in tears, but this one attendant dug her heels in and wouldn’t budge. The other three attendants scoured the Flight Attendants’ Handbook and found a clause that stated that if a passenger was unable to sit independently they were allowed to sit on a lap. She had the opportunity to make a justifiable exception and chose not to.”

In the end, Kirschenbaum’s husband asked the pilot to mediate. According to Kirschenbaum, “the pilot’s compromise was that my daughter Ivy was placed in a seat and buckled in for take off and landing. She had to lay across my husband’s lap for this duration as she is unable to sit up. She was permitted to return to my lap for the other portion of the flight.”

Related: Things You Should Never Say to a Flight Attendant (Unless You Want to Make Her Mad)

united airlines unitedwithivy special needs child
united airlines unitedwithivy special needs child

Children under the age of 2 are allowed to fly in their parent’s lap. (Photo: Thinkstock)

A spokeswoman for United told ABC News, “The parents, who were ticketed in first class, wanted to hold the child in their lap rather than have the child take the seat they’d purchased for her in economy. Federal safety regulations require any child over the age of two to have his or her own seat, and flight attendants are required by law to enforce that safety rule. As we did in this case, we will always try to work with customers on seating arrangements in the event of any special needs.”

According to William McGee, author of Attention All Passengers and the lone consumer advocate on the DOT’s Future of Aviation Advisory Committee, this incident highlights a number of issues. “But the bottom line is these parents not only were wrong, they also were attempting to violate federal law,” McGee told Yahoo Travel. “Since 1953, Civil Air Regulation 40.174 has stated: ‘A seat and an individual safety belt are required for each passenger and crewmember excluding infants.’

And then there is the nagging reality of the dangers of children sitting in a parent’s lap aboard a flight. “This is a safety issue that transcends any of the airline industry’s draconian rules about sitting in the wrong class of service,” McGee says. ”All safety experts – including the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board — acknowledge infants should only fly in proper restraints and never as ‘lap kids.’ But because the FAA and the airlines will not enforce a ban on lap children, confusion sets in. Therefore, these types of situations become inevitable.”

Related: Skimpy Pics, Bad Tweets and One Lost Grandma: Biggest Airline Flops of 2014

unitedwithivy special needs child airline debate
unitedwithivy special needs child airline debate

Critics think Elit Kirschenbaum should have bought a first-class seat for her daughter (Thinkstock)

Brancatelli agrees that children flying in their parent’s lap isn’t ideal: “We require everything on an airline to be tied down for takeoff and landing — except small children, he says. “I can’t and never have been able to understand why the FAA thinks children under two are okay to be potential flying projectiles. I think every human being, regardless of age, needs to have their own seat and be strapped in during take off and landing.”

And then there’s the issue of a child sitting apart from their parents, which has become a hot button among critics of Kirschenbaum’s decision to buy tickets for herself and her husband in first class, while buying an economy-class ticket for her daughter — whether or not they actually intended to have their daughter fly in that seat.

“The passenger is wrong because she should have purchased a first-class seat for her ‘lap child” in order to avoid any issues,’ says travel advisor Jack S. Ezon, president of Ovation Vacations. "To put a child who cannot be alone in coach without any supervision is asking for trouble.”

Related: Ridiculous Travel Accessories That Will Drive Other Passengers Nuts

Ezon says he often sees parents splurging on business or first-class tickets for themselves while relegating their children to coach. Ezon, who is himself a father of four, says: “I never split up from my kids, and I always advise my clients to buy a seat and travel in the same class as their children.”

McGee agrees: “As a general rule, it is not a good idea for adults to book children — particularly young children or children with special needs — in a separate class of service. Allowing children who require attention to sit with strangers puts an unfair burden on others passengers and flight attendants, and it becomes a social issue as well as a safety issue.”

Still, it’s bad news for United Airlines, which has been at the center of a number of social media controversies in recent months. In August, United accidentally sent a form apology to a passenger who had complained to the airline. In September, a United Airlines flight was grounded over a fight between two passengers, due to the knee defender, a device that blocks a seat from reclining. And in December, the airline left a passenger’s dog on a rainy tarmac for nearly an hour.

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