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12 November 2009

Passenger with Suspected H1N1 Flu Removed from Plane and Later Misses Connection

Cindy describes a situation that involved compensation issues for delayed flights, the airline's response to a perceived medical issue involving Cindy, and the airline's response to her situation.

Date: 9 November 2009
Location: San Antonio, TX
Airline: United Airlines Flight 7316, SAT to IAD

As we were all boarding the airplane and I was seated,a lady sat next to me. I have been having sinus problems and they were draining and making me cough and my head hurt. She asked me if I was feeling okay and I said no but "It's not the flu." The lady jumped out of her seat and ran up front to a vacant one.

The flight attendant talked to her about it and the next thing I knew the same flight attendant told me to put on a mask. I tried to tell her I wasn't that kind of ill and showed her my Advil sinus and cold pills I've been taking. She insisted I wear it and I asked if I could just hold it up to my mouth because I am allergic to latex and was afraid the rubber bands would cause skin irritation. She replied that I wasn't being cooperative and causing a disturbance which was going to result in my being removed from the plane. I still was afraid to wear it but continued to hold it against my mouth.

The next thing I knew was the plane was being turned off the runway and parked at the terminal while everyone on board was groaning about missing their connections. The flight attendant then told me to follow her to the front of the plane while I held the mask in place. As I walked down the aisle I was so embarrassed and humiliated as everyone in the aisle seats leaned away from me.

When I got to the front a man told her to take me back to my seat, that the medics would check me out back there. So I returned to my seat which was only 2 or 3 rows from the end of the plane, so once again I had to walk past all the people in total humiliation as they all stared at me. Then after I was seated again, I was told they changed their mind and I needed to walk forward again only this time she carried my bottle of water from the front pocket of my seating area. I said to her "I guess this means I won't be coming back" and she said nothing.

I was so terrified of what was going to happen to me and whether I was going to end up at a hospital or left at the airport to sleep on the chairs or how I was going to get back home. I did my best to remain calm and put on a brave face and comply with all that was being asked of me but inside I was a nervous wreck and trying hard not break down in front of everyone.

As I was forced off the plane I saw a group of men wearing masks and standing next to an extremely scary looking contraption they proceeded to strap my legs and waist to. I was so frightened, my legs were shaking as they all started sticking things to my body and asking me questions. It felt like I was having a horrible nightmare and couldn't wake up. Finally after what seemed like an eternity they cleared me to get back on the plane. For the fourth time I had to walk down the aisle in embarrassment. After we took off and it became dark and I was hoping no one could see me, did I then finally let my emotions loose and silently cried during the whole flight.

Needless to say almost everyone missed their connections after we landed late, I was one of them (According to, this United Flight 7316 left 58 minutes late and landed 47 minutes late at 9:29 pm local time). It was almost 10:00 pm when I was told the next flight out wouldn't be till morning. The three people I had been traveling with were mad at me because they had to be at work in the morning, so they called a friend to drive two hours to pick them up and United told they would have their money refunded from the trip.

The customer service man gave me the tickets for a hotel room, flight pass and a meal ticket. I told him about my ordeal and asked if I could be refunded for my flight costs and he said no, but instead gave me a $150 credit voucher. Since I drove them in my car to the airport I was stuck having to pay for the almost $50 parking lot fee and gas which one of my traveling companions was supposed to pay on the way home.

This whole experience has left me feeling traumatized and I feel that after what I had to go through I should be totally compensated for my flight costs and above mentioned additional monetary costs. I truly believe That I deserve at least that much. Responds
This raises three issues. Compensation questions concerning delayed or canceled flights come up frequently in the Complaint System, and was stated in earlier articles, US airlines are not required to offer any compensation due to a delayed or canceled flight. The airline was not required to give compensation in this case, though the different levels of compensation may represent a fairness issue best dealt with by contacting an airline manager in the customer service area.

The second issue is passenger compensation for treatment by airport or airline staff. The passenger in this case felt traumatized and embarrassed by what she had to go through, but there is no specific FAA rules for compensating passengers who have this kind of experience. If a passenger is seeking some kind of apology or compensation, filing a formal request with the airline may be one option.

The third and most complex issue is whether the airline addressed the apparent medical issue with the passenger in an appropriate way. In the last week of October 2009, the US Centers for Disease Control had reported that the H1N1 flu activity was widespread in 48 of the 50 states, including Texas. The CDC has also provided guidance to airlines about what to do with passengers who exhibit flu-like symptoms. Suggestions include:

- Cabin and flight deck crew should be aware of the possible symptoms of novel influenza A (H1N1) virus infection including fever, cough, sore throat, body aches, headache, runny or stuffy nose

- Separate the ill person from others as much as possible (at least 6 feet) without compromising flight safety.

- Have the ill person protect others by wearing a face mask, if it can be tolerated, to reduce the number of droplets coughed or sneezed into the air. found no CDC guidance that called for what the airline apparently did, which was to taxi back to the terminal for further medical screening. The CDC stated that an airline's captain is required to contact the CDC if there is a suspected H1N1 infection on an international flights flying to the US, and the CDC in such cases may arrange for appropriate medical assistance, but no such guidance was found for a suspected infection on a domestic flight.

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