This is a really sad and unfortunate situation. The Northeast has experienced some horrible weather over the past few days, which has had big implications for airline operations. We saw many flights get diverted, and even more flights get canceled. While the weather isn’t within airlines’ control, how they take care of their passengers (largely) is.

A passenger who was scheduled to fly American from Minneapolis to New York LaGuardia on Friday, March 2, 2018, shares the story that left two passengers who don’t speak English in a hospital in critical condition. The passenger’s version of the story is nearly 2,500 words, so I’m going to do my best to summarize it, though I’ll also share the full post below.

Here’s what I take away as the highlights of what unfolded to lead to this horrible situation:

  • An American flight that was supposed to land at New York’s LaGuardia was instead diverted to Baltimore due to bad weather
  • In Baltimore, American put passengers on a bus that was supposed to go to New York, but they provided passengers with limited information, and didn’t say where exactly the bus was going, how long the ride would take, etc.
  • Google Maps said the ride should take 4.5 hours, but 10 hours into the ride they had only moved 30 miles, so the bus turned around and headed back to Baltimore Airport; due to the weather conditions two trucks flipped over, blocking traffic
  • The person telling the story spoke Chinese, and recounts how she talked to two Chinese passengers who were visiting their son, and didn’t speak any English, so she did everything she could to help them and put them at ease
  • The bus had no bathrooms and no food, and passengers didn’t feel taken care of; initially the only bathroom stop was passengers being told they can pee on the side of the road
  • At this point (over 10 hours into the ride) the bus stopped at a McDonald’s, so passengers could use the bathroom and buy food; the passenger telling the story suggested that the Chinese couple go with her across the street to Rite Aid and/or Applebee’s, since McDonald’s was so busy
  • Next thing she knows, both of the passengers were lying in the street unconscious and covered in blood, as they had been hit by cars due to lack of visibility and bad weather
  • They were taken to the hospital, and the person telling the story went above and beyond to check up on them, hold onto their luggage, try to find their son, and more
  • American did virtually nothing to help, and eventually they offered a $500 voucher to the passenger as gratitude for how she helped the couple
  • The couple is still in the hospital, with the husband needing surgery to repair the nerves in his spine to make sure he has functional brain use, and the wife also needs surgery; both are in critical condition

There are a lot more details, so if you’re interested in reading the story, it can all be found below.

First and foremost, what an awful situation, and I hope the couple in question is able to make a speedy and full recovery. It’s tough enough to travel in a country where no one speaks the language under normal conditions (and I’m incredibly lucky to speak English, because in most countries people speak at least a little bit of English, so I never truly feel like I can’t communicate with anyone), but that’s only made much worse when things go wrong.

This is a horrible, horrible situation, and I’m still trying to process what I make of it. Is it American’s fault that the flight diverted? No. Is it American’s fault that the weather was so bad that trucks flipped and a 30 mile ride took 10 hours? No. Is it American’s fault (specifically) that the couple decided to run across the street (presumably not at a crosswalk)? No.

But at the same time, it is American’s fault that they didn’t communicate well about what passengers could expect, that they didn’t give passengers options, that they didn’t provide food & drinks, and at a minimum, it shows a lack of compassion that they didn’t do more to take care of the passengers once they were in the hospital.

At the same time, I also recognize that airline operations are incredibly, ridiculously complex. It’s a miracle that airlines function as efficiently as they do when things are going well, while things become infinitely more difficult when stuff goes wrong. The flight diverted to a non-hub, and I imagine most American employees at the airport were working on rebooking passengers on flights departing the airport. I assume phone lines were backed up, even if they increased staffing. In many ways I imagine American was maxed out in terms of what they were able to do.

That certainly doesn’t excuse an airline being negligent. But what’s unfortunate here is that I can see the series of events that led to something like this happening, and there’s not one specific thing I can point my finger at and say “this is what caused the whole situation.” Rather it’s a series of unfortunate events.

The situation is incredibly tragic, and airlines need to do better when things go wrong. What I’m not sure of is how much of this situation was caused by American’s negligence, rather than just a series of factors that lead to a very bad outcome.

What do you make of this situation?

For anyone who wants to read it, here’s the full account of what happened, per a Facebook post:

Yesterday, I was on a flight that not only did not get us to our destination but also failed to take care of its passengers. Two passengers were hit by a pick-up truck because of it. As I trekked to the hospital, I was the one bringing them their luggages. I was the one doing the translating. I was the one taking care of these passengers who were injured because American Airlines failed to take care of its passengers and neglected these two passengers especially. I was a passenger on American Airlines Flight 4664, flying from Minneapolis to LaGuardia Airport on March 2nd, 2018. Our flight, among many others, was redirected to Baltimore, where American Airlines shoved us onto buses without bathrooms or food for 9 hours and where two older Chinese passengers who spoke no English were severely wounded when let out for food and hit by a truck.

It was an early Friday morning. I had taken the light rail into the airport, which was clean, efficient, and seemed to have no warning signs of a storm to come in New York. Towards the end of our three hour flight, we were suddenly notified on the broadcast system that due to the weather conditions, we would not be attempting to land in LGA but instead in JFK because if we failed to land the first time we would have to go to Baltimore. Our attempted landing in JFK resulted in immense turbulence – passengers were breathing into their paper bags and throwing up. As we were staring down at New York below us, I felt the aircraft zoom back up and into the airspace. We were headed for Baltimore.

We landed in Baltimore, Maryland at 2:15 pm. When we landed, we were ushered off the aircraft and told to “get on buses to New York.” We were not told where these buses were, how to get to them, how long they would take, or what an alternative solution was. There was no sign of accommodation for elderly, pregnant, disabled, or non-English speaking passengers. Flights from Detroit, Minneapolis, Nashville, all over the country, were being ushered onto these buses. No one was helping any of us. When we got onto the bus, it was a fight for seats, and a fight for outlets. No one saw a single outlet. Google Maps told us the trip should take four and a half hours. This would absolutely not be the case.

About an hour into the trip, a woman ran to the front and asked the bus driver, “what do we do if we need to go to the bathroom?” He yelled, and she ran back to her seat. An hour later, we were stuck on the Interstate, he opened the bus door and several people unloaded out onto the emergency rail side of the road to pee. This was our choice of bathroom for the next ten hours.

At this time, an older Chinese couple two rows in front of me approached me. The older woman looked at me and said in Chinese, “are you Chinese?” I smiled and nodded. She looked relieved. She patted me on the shoulder, “I’m so glad there is another Chinese person here. We were so afraid we were alone.” She pulled open an A4 sheet of paper from her pocket. On it were Chinese questions with their Google Translated English approximations, “Where is taxi stand?” “How I call a taxi?” and “My gate is (__.) Please help me.” She looked at me and smiled, “I was going to ask you to help me translate how to ask him where we are going so I could ask, but since you know, you can tell me?”

For the rest of the trip, neither her nor her husband said much. They sat there for ten hours straight without using the restroom or eating anything. They spoke to me only briefly to ask me if there was any update about an ETA. They had no internet service so I kept using Google Maps to help them. No one else was helping. What were they supposed to do when they didn’t speak English? How would any other person who was not able-bodied, who was pregnant, who was a child, or with a young child supposed to handle this? How would they have gotten through it?

Ten hours into the bus ride, we had only travelled 30 miles. Two trucks had flipped over the bridge because of winds, so all the bridges were closed. We were stuck in traffic and not moving a single inch. At this point, a passenger went up to the bus driver to ask what was going on, and we were informed, by a PASSENGER that we were turning around and going back to the BWI airport at Baltimore, MD. We were not told how we would get to New York, if we would have a place to stay or anything at all. Everyone was on the phone trying to get American Airline. No one got an answer. It was not just incompetence. It was absolute negligence. Suddenly the bus turned around and stopped. We had stopped in front of a McDonald’s in a parking lot. The door opened and we were told to “get out and get food and go to the bathroom.”

The McDonald’s was packed. Everyone was running to the toilet. The wind was so strong we had a hard time seeing. There was an Applebee’s and a Shop Rite across the way. Several of us wanted to run across the way to get food. We were not told when to get back on the bus, when the bus would leave. Nothing. The Chinese couple got off the bus with me. Unable to speak any English, they followed me to the McDonald’s where the husband went to the bathroom. After I realised how packed it was, I told them we should go to the Applebee’s to get food. At the Applebee’s, the wife and I went to the bathroom, and saw how crowded it was. I told them we should go to Shop Rite to get some food, but it was so windy. The weather was so bad, they told me they were going to head back to the bus and wait for me there.

Shop Rite was closed. I was scared the bus would leave. I ran so fast I couldn’t breathe with the wind blowing in my face. As I ran across the road, I saw a truck stopped in front of a body on the ground. And then another car and then another body on the ground. There was blood. Both bodies were face down. They were an entire length of a car apart.

When I get back to the bus, they were not there. Ten minutes passed, no one came. Fifteen passed. Then twenty. I was beginning to feel nauseous. The bus driver got up and said, “does anyone think anyone is missing?” There was no roll call. I immediately ran up to the driver and said, “there are two passengers missing. I think… I think they might be the two people who were run over there. By the car. Can I go look?” The door opened, and I ran down and sprinted over to where all the ambulances and police cars were. The bodies had been taken away. I asked the police, “was the couple an elderly Chinese couple who did not speak English?” The police nodded, “do you know anything about them?”

I told them everything I knew. I told them the last person the couple called on their cell phone was their son in New York who they were visiting. I gave the cop my number and told him to call me for anything, and to let me know if he got any news about them. When I ran back to the bus, I was in hysterics. I was crying and blurted out the news. The bus was confused, the bus driver was shocked. But then we left. No one contacted American Airlines. The bus just picked up and drove away, back to the BWI airport. I called the hospitals in Baltimore. I finally got in contact with Bayview hospital where I tracked the couple down.

When we got back to the airport, no one took care of their belongings. I picked up the backpack and carry on they had on the bus. When we got off, their checked baggage was just left on the sidewalk. No one took care of it, so I did. I took all of their belongings along with mine and went into the airport where I tried for fifteen minutes to tell someone, “two of your passengers were run over by a truck.”

When I finally got a counter and told them what had happened, I was ushered secretly to a back room that was locked by a pin. I told them to call Bayview. I told them the passengers’ last name. I told him they only spoke Chinese and where the accident was. I told him I had all their luggages and would be willing to take it to them because AA clearly would not take care of anything. I was told I would be given a ride to the hospital but would have no way back. I was told they had an interpreter at the hospital present. I was told to take a train instead of a flight out.

I was put onto a taxi to go to the hospital. Midway through the ride, I was told by the cab driver, Raphael, that he was not given money for toll, so he would not be able to go to the hospital or pick me up. He stopped on the side of the highway and spent 20 minutes calling the airport and his boss for toll money. I had just lost my wallet and had nothing to give. But how could an airline leave a passenger stranded when they were just trying to help when no one in AA was helping at all?

I was told I would have 30 minutes at the hospital. When I finally located the two passengers, they were in separate rooms in the hospital ER unit. There was no interpreter. There was no one helping. When I got into the room, the husband kept asking, “where is my wife? Where is my wife?” He had been told nothing about his conditions or where his wife was or how he was doing. There was no one giving him any information whatsoever. They had not even identified him. I spent the next 40 minutes translating for the doctors and the nurses. Telling them where the pain was for him and asking about both of their injuries. The husband had suffered severe fractures to his spine and neck and the wife had been hit straight in the head and was unconscious. She was going to need eye surgery among other procedures.

I left them their belongings, left my phone number as the primary contact, and told them to call me if they needed any help with translation or anything. American Airlines had not contacted them or sent anyone. When I left, the wife was covered in blood and unconscious. The husband asked me to stay, he said he had no relatives nearby and would really appreciate the help because he really couldn’t understand what anyone was saying. I called the son who told me he was driving on the way from New York. He asked me for any information I had because he was told by the hospital he had to prove his identity and that he was their son to get any information from them.

I gave him my number to call for anything he might need and left at around 4 in the morning to go back to Baltimore. On my way back there, the cop who I had spoken to at the crime scene called me. He told me they tried to unlock their phone but could not do so and so tried to call AA. American Airlines did not pick up at all and so he spent 45 minutes trying to call every Chinese consulate he could get ahold of before he finally spoke to someone at the San Francisco Chinese consulate who contacted the embassy who found their son. He told me that little bit of information I gave them was immensely helpful because they had no knowledge of who they were at all. American Airlines had told them nothing and had not even attempted to locate them. Why would they have? They had no idea where their passengers were.

I was given a place to stay and told to find my way back to the airport in the morning where I had to buy a train ticket out. All of the trains were sold out. I slept for three hours on and off until I had to wake up to the go to the train station. When I got there, all the trains had been cancelled or delayed. I didn’t have any money and had to find my way back to the airport where I was told I could not get on a flight back because it was all packed.

I finally got back to New York city late this afternoon. After most of us had been told to sleep in the airport on the floor and most travel plans were cancelled. I was not contacted by AA at all. I called Bayview and the couples’ son several times in the past 24 hours, and have since filed a complaint. About an hour ago, I was contacted by AA on the phone. I was offered a “$500 gift voucher from American Airlines as a symbol of our gratitude.” I was told they would like to improve for future situations. I was told they were “doing what they could.”

That is bullshit. AA did absolutely nothing. They’ve tried to silence me and pay me off. They’ve tried to say they were helping with interpreters and personnel and communication but they’ve not only been non-communicative but negligent, ignorant, and disgustingly irresponsible.

The last I heard, the husband is in surgery to try and repair the nerves in his spine to make sure he has functional brain use. They are not sure if he will. The wife was still in surgery and both are in critical condition. American Airlines is liable. On the phone last night, the son asked me, “I don’t know if it was the fault of the truck driver or the airline, but I might need to talk to you more soon.” I said to him before he finished speaking, “It was the airline. You have to take legal action. American Airlines is the one who has to pay.” And a $500 voucher will do nothing to silence me.

I am not sharing this to gain sympathy or compliments. But I want more people to know about this. I want more people to know about what American Airlines did not do and ignored. And I want this family to receive the compensation and support they need and deserve at this time, especially if and when they take legal action and need all the help they can get.

(Tip of the hat to Leo & Shang)

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