Denise Cummins Ph.D.

Good Thinking

Was United Airlines Justified in Removing an Autistic Child?

Rationality requires distinguishing the world as it should be from the way it is

Posted May 12, 2015

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Source: Google images labeled for reuse

In this story gone viral,  a mother of an autistic daughter describes how she and her family ended up getting evicted from a United Airlines flight in a dispute over a hot meal.

The autistic daughter, Juliette, refuses to eat cold food. Her mother, Donna Beegle,  bought her a hot meal in the airport, but she refused to eat it. On the flight, they were seated in economy, and hot meals were served only in first class. [UPDATE: Donna Beegle, EdD, is a prominent advocate for anti-poverty programs who frequently consults with state and federal government agencies. A PBS documentary featuring Dr. Beegle can be found here.]

When Juliette became hungry, Dr. Beegle offered her snacks that she had packed for the trip, but Juliette refused them. So Dr. Beegle explained the situation to a flight attendant and asked if she could purchase a hot meal for her daughter. The flight attendant initially refused, insisting that hot meals were for first class customers only. When Dr. Beegle underscored the potential seriousness of the situation by  that blurting out that her daughter could have a meltdown and begin scratching people, the flight attendant resentfully relented. Juliette quietly ate her meal and watched a movie.

You would think that would be the end of it. But you would be wrong. The flight attendants apparently reported to the captain that there was a threat to other passengers on the plane, and the captain made an emergency landing. Police and paramedics boarded the plane, and, along with the captain, insisted that Dr. Beegle, her husband, her son, and her daughter deplane, which they did. One of the police officers returned to the plane, and then re-emerged to tell her this:

"You know we have some really violent cases where the plane should land. This is not one of those. You have a lot of people supporting your claim that nothing happened and your daughter should stay on the plane."

Dr. Beegle posted her story on social media,  and received an avalanche of comments. The majority was supportive, but a significant and very vocal minority posted comments like this:

"LP: … the Mom, knowing the issues her daughter has....did not prepare well for the flight. She could have contacted the airline in advance to see if they could accommodate a special meal request or be willing to heat up something. She should have been better prepared with foods that her daughter would eat. But the biggest mistakes this mom made.....telling the flight crew that if her daugher didn't get a hot meal she would have a melt down and start scratching people."

So was the airline justified?

The world that should be vs the world that is

LP is certainly right in each of the points she raises. And that is all entirely beside the point. This is a situation where, as my mother used to say, common sense would tell you what to do.

LP describes the perfect world, the world as it woulda-shoulda-coulda been where the problem never arose because Dr. Beegle did everything just right and Juliette responded just so. But, unfortunately, that is not the world that existed in reality on that plane.

In the real world, a potentially serious problem existed that could be prevented through a low-cost solution: Simply give the child the hot meal, and tell the mom to order one for her daughter on all future flights. This is called thinking on your feet. It is called problem solving.

But instead, the flight attendants chose to mindlessly insist on following the rules: Hot meals were for first class passengers only, and Dr. Beegle hadn't ordered anything special for her daughter. So, from this myopic point of view, nothing needs to be done, other than removing the potential threat and inconveniencing an entire plane full of passengers in the process. Those who are critical of Dr. Beegle are thinking this way.

Why people blame the victim

There is always a peanut gallery of harpies who are ready to pounce on victims and lecture them about how they have to take responsibility for all the many, many rules they broke and all the things they woulda-coulda-shoulda done differently. Rarely do they find fault with powerful people in positions of authority, no matter how out of line those authorities behave.

They blame the victim in order to make themselves feel safer: That bad thing happened to that person because that person did this and this and this wrong. I, on the other hand, would never make those mistakes, and so "that bad thing" will never happen to me. This is sometimes referred to as false empowerment—deluding yourself into believing you are more powerful and infallible than you really are.

And here is the big problem with taking this stance: It doesn't matter how much we try to blame the victim, we don't make ourselves one bit safer. All we do is increase the suffering of the victim by telling her that what happened is her own fault, and, with the clarity of 20-20 hindsight, you are so much smarter and better that you would never make any of the mistakes that made bad things happen to her.

Are you above making mistakes? I know I'm not. I know I'm human and sometimes need the patience and kindness of others to help me recover from a sticky situation that arose due to bad luck or poor planning. So I believe in cutting people slack and focusing on solving problems rather than mindlessly sticking to rules and gleefully assigning blame.

There was no real threat to anyone on that plane. The passengers themselves attested to this. The police attested to this.  So it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the actions of the captain and flight attendants reflect fear, ignorance, and vindictiveness: Fear and ignorance regarding autism, and vindictiveness toward Ms. Beegle for insisting that they take a simple action to avoid a possible crisis.

Given that the captain and police were initially under the impression that the crisis was already taking place—that Juliette had become violent and was attempting to scratch people—it is difficult also to avoid the conclusion that the flight attendants simply lied in order to shore up their fear and to punish Dr. Beegle. It must have indeed been humiliating for her to be shunted off the plane under police escort.

The ending of this story also shows how unnecessary the flight crew's actions were. The Beegle family boarded another plane and:

"We flew the rest of the way home as we have flown around the country with no problem. Juliette has flown since she was six months. She has been to five countries, 24 states and we have never experienced anything like this. Most often the flight attendants go out of their way to make Juliette comfortable and happy."

So the flight crew apparently stirred up a tempest in a teapot, humiliated a family, and brought their employers a hailstorm of bad publicity (and potential lawsuit) because…?

The cost of complying with the mother's request was the cost of single hot meal--for which she even was willing to pay. The benefits of complying with the mother's request was preventing an unpleasant incident for the passengers, avoiding causing the child distress, and securing the gratitude and future loyalty of the child's parents.

The cost of not complying with the the mother's request was risking instigating an  unpleasant incident for the passengers and distress to the child. The benefit of not complying was to keep hot meals restricted to first class passengers. It pushes the bounds of credulity to believe that the first class passengers would have been incensed to find that a hot meal had been give to an autistic child in economy.

You do the math. There is no way to make choice B come out looking rational. 

Definitely not a case of Good Thinking.

What do you think?

Copyright Dr. Denise Cummins May 12, 2015

Dr. Cummins is a research psychologist, a Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science,  and the author of Good Thinking: Seven Powerful Ideas That Influence the Way We Think.

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