American Airlines lost my mother — don’t let them do this again

American Airlines lost Stephanie Mueller’s mom. They found her eventually, but Mueller wants more than an apology. She’s determined to make sure this never happens to someone else’s mother.

By now, you can see the title of this feature is Case Dismissed! — and while the airline may have dismissed her case, I haven’t.

“My mother has had dementia related to what we believe to be Alzheimer’s for several years and is at the point where she isn’t able to travel alone,” Mueller explains. “I recently planned to have her visit me for a weekend so she could spend time with me and her granddaughter while she still recognizes us.”

Mueller’s mom can still remember the basics, like where to meet her daughter when she arrives at the airport.

“I called American Airlines after I booked her flight and asked if I could arrange to go through security in Washington to pick her up at the gate, and also asked if my dad could get through security as well when he took her to the airport in Greensboro, N.C.,” she says.

The response?

I was told by “special services” with American that they could arrange a wheelchair for her.

I explained that physically she is still fine and that she would be likely to get upset if they tried to put her in a wheelchair. She is aware that she is losing her memory and gets easily agitated if she has a sense that people are treating her as an invalid.

I was then assured that my dad and I would be able to get a pass for security so that we could make sure she was accompanied while in the airport.

I was also told that if for some reason they weren’t able to locate us when she arrived at the airport, someone from the airline would escort her to baggage claim or the curb and be with her until one of us picked her up.

Problem solved, right? Not really.

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I’ll let her explain what happened next:

On the night she flew into Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA), I arrived over an hour early and got the pass to go through security. I then waited where they said she would arrive, and let the staff there know that I was waiting for my mom who had dementia.

I saw on my phone that her flight had arrived, but was told that it would take a while for someone to get her, since she was on a small plane that required a bus to get back to the terminal.

After watching passenger after passenger get off, I asked again and was finally told a half hour after the plane landed that they didn’t know where she was. Apparently someone had finally gone to retrieve her from the plane but at that point, the plane was empty.

I could not believe that they had lost her.

I also couldn’t believe that they didn’t seem too phased by it. One of the people from the gate walked with me to the police to let them know that she was missing, then they told me to go to the baggage claim area to see if she was there.

I then went to the American office at baggage claim, where they had no idea what I was talking about and made me wait while they tried to locate on a walkie talkie the woman who was supposed to have looked for my mom on the plane.

Mueller enlisted the help of airport police to launch a search party for her mother and eventually found her walking around the baggage area. Her mother said she was about to call a cab to get a ride home, “which would have been terrifying, since she doesn’t remember my address and doesn’t know how to direct a cab there,” says Mueller.

So what does she want?

“For American Airlines to investigate why this happened to my mom and take steps to ensure it doesn’t happen with other travelers,” she says. “They need to either stop saying they are able to provide direct special services assistance to travelers with dementia who are traveling unaccompanied, or provide more training and oversight to ensure that their employees do, in fact, provide the service in a compassionate, dependable and responsible way.”

That’s not unreasonable.

I had a private conversation with my American Airlines contact. Turns out both of us have elderly relatives with dementia, and we agreed that we would never let them travel alone. But Mueller sought — and received — assurances that American could handle her mother. That’s a problem. Either you can handle a passenger with special needs, or you can’t.

American promised to investigate. And it did — kind of. Mueller reported back with the following update:

A representative from customer service contacted me shortly after you reached out to them and told me they were following up on my complaint.

They then sent me an email saying they had done an investigation and concluded they didn’t do anything wrong since they are required to provide assistance only if the passenger requests it.

It seems to me that should rule out helping anyone with a mental disability or illness, since those passengers will most likely not be able to ask for assistance.

They did also say that they are taking my feedback and working with their staff in D.C. and Greensboro to try and make sure what happened to my mom doesn’t happen again.

That’s good news. Thanks, American. And Stephanie, next time mom needs to go somewhere, please ask someone to go with her.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at Read more of Christopher's articles here.

  • JewelEyed

    “She is aware that she is losing her memory and gets easily agitated if
    she has a sense that people are treating her as an invalid.” So…it sounds like she would get agitated if she was offered help in a way she didn’t like by strangers. Even if they could offer help that wasn’t requested, they certainly can’t provide help that is refused. That seems like someone who is most definitely not a good candidate for traveling alone, even with requested assistance.

    At bare minimum, someone like that would need someone she knows to put her on the plane at the gate and someone waiting at the gate to collect her with the plane lands. If there is any deviation, an emergency landing, a delay, flight arriving slightly early, everything could go pear shaped. Not to mention that if she did get agitated with someone trying to help her on the plane, she could get thrown off the flight, and then what? Every part of this is just not such a good idea. I hope this article will encourage people not to try this.

  • Rebecca

    I admit I have a genuinely mentally ill elderly grandmother. And my other grandmother was suffering from Alzheimer’s so badly, it was heartbreaking and disturbing. Looking at this case from this perspective, I am 100% blaming the OP here. People with this type of medical need absolutely require specialized care that cannot be provided by a customer service person at an airline. Nor should it. The airline offers wheelchair and mobility assistance. They do not offer elder care services. All I could think while reading this was about the people on the other end at AA that had to deal with something WAY outside of their job description. The OP admits her mother is difficult. My experience with “difficult” elderly people is that it takes very little time to lose your patience, literally a matter of seconds. And I have a 2 month and 15 month old; I do not lose my patience easily!

  • Rebecca

    I can’t wrap my head around why the OP requested assistance in the first place. These are airline employees, not medical professionals. Someone with this type of medical needs absolutely requires a caregiver, be it a relative or a paid professional.

  • Chris_In_NC

    While I hear the OP’s frustrations, my first reaction was “What is she thinking?” Full disclosure, we are in the process of moving a family member with advanced dementia in a similar situation. Under no circumstances would we have her fly by herself. At a minimum, we would have a family member accompany her.

    Airline employees (ie gate agents and flight attendants) are not trained to provide that type of one-on-one care. Nor are they medical professionals. I understand that the OP got “assurance” from AA that they could handle the issue. But I suspect AA is in a tough situation. If they flat out refuse, someone will claim discrimination or accuse the airline of refusing service.

    I’m not convinced AA guaranteed or even implied that they can handle a situation like this. It is my experience that most will say very generic answers when asked. Responses like “this is what we can provide” and leave it up to the customer to decide. But then again, I wasn’t privy to the original conversation.

  • Randy Culpepper

    “…she isn’t able to travel alone.”

    So why did you have her travel alone?

  • KanExplore

    I was traveling with my invalid father arriving at a small airport. He used a wheelchair and it was one of those places without a jetway, where you had to get off a regional jet and go down a flight of stairs to get to the tarmac. The crew was obviously ill prepared for the situation, seemingly trying to figure it out as they bumbled along attempting to get the wheelchair down the steps. I jumped in to help and was told, “You’re interfering with the crew. You can get into a lot of trouble for that.” I replied, “That’s my father and you obviously are having trouble with this. I’m not going to have you kill him. And by the way you and your airline will be in a lot of trouble if anything happens to him because of your lack of training in handling disabled passengers.” They scowled at me but let me help. I filed a complaint with the airline urging them to get their employees trained properly.


    The OP puts it best when she said: “My mother has had dementia related to what we believe to be Alzheimer’s for several years and is at the point where she isn’t able to travel alone.” So the OP calls the airlines and says the airline told her that they would look after her. In my book that is still traveling alone.
    I am simply appalled at the OP. She and her daughter could have gone to visit or her father could have come along as well. I hate American Airlines and have refused to fly them for 15 years. But I find it hard to blame them for this fiasco. An elderly parent with dementia who is not able to travel alone should never have traveled alone. This debacle is primarily the fault of the family who knew traveling alone was not a good option but still had mom do it anyway.

  • Asiansm Dan

    I am 60 with no Dementia & Alzheimer’s, but I lost myself quite frequently, specically when involve American Eagle small planes or and others subcontractors like United Express… or any with an Express on their logo (turned out to be the contrary to any thing but inconvenience nor Express).

  • Jeff W.

    I am going to agree with everyone so far who has spoken up about how this should not have been flying alone.

    I also disagree with Chris in that is certainly unreasonable for airline personnel to be able to properly handle passegers with various stages of dementia. They are airline employees, not medical personnel. And even so, the woman is still legally an adult — so that is another fine line to deal with.

    Now here is possibly another way for the airlines to make money. They already charge for unaccompanied children — so what about the same for unaccompanied seniors? Because this case really sounds like the OP could have used what that service provides when minors fly alone. Yes, it is a surcharge. And yes, we have seen posts where things go wrong. But it was what the OP needed to make sure her mother had a safe trip. And typically those airline personnel have better training to deal with children, so I wouldn’t consider it too much to provide those airline employees the additional training.

  • JenniferFinger

    I agree. I’d expand “unaccompanied minor” programs to include adults who require assistance and can’t travel alone like this woman. I’m really astonished that she was expected to fly alone to a place where she can’t reach her final destination on her own.

  • Pat

    A relative or friend that her mother knew and could handle a situation should have traveled with her. The mother should not have flown alone and expecting the airline to know how to deal with and take care of her mother was beyond what should be expected from the airline. I dealt with a father with dementia and I would not expect an airline employee how to deal with someone with dementia or Alzheimer’s.

  • Laura616

    My mother has the same condition and there is no way she could go anywhere unfamiliar to her – alone. I’m sorry but it was a very stupid thing to do.

  • Susie

    Ms. Mueller states “My mother has had dementia related to what we believe to be Alzheimer’s for several years”. Could be that her mother is just beginning to exhibit althzeimer symptoms but she has not been diagnosed with it. With my mom, in the beginning before being diagnosed….she was independent and could function on her own and yes would get agitated if she got lost or forgot something. We didn’t let her drive to prevent her from getting lost…but she was still capable of driving a car. So that may be the problem. Her mother may have been capable of being on her own but needed someone to guide her so she didn’t get lost….and if that was indeed the case, wheelchair assistance would have been ok. But if she was farther along in her dementia where they fight the “stranger” for trying to assist, then that wouldn’t have worked. But only Ms. Mueller knows what her mother is or is not capable of handling. And to add to the problem, if you’ve never dealt with someone with althzeimers, it’s a learning process….I know there were things I didn’t think of until it happened (like my mom leaving the house in the middle of the night…after that we installed a lock out of my mom’s reach). I just think this problem is more complicated than just “I wouldn’t have allowed her to travel on her own”.

  • Elisa

    When are people going to take responsibility for their own situations? This daughter is so concerned about her mother traveling alone but puts her on an airplane alone? With the millions of things that could go wrong from point A to B regardless of the fact that the husband saw her on the plane and the daughter was waiting for her on arrival. What would the mother have done if there was an unexpected problem during the flight and the airplane had to land at another airport? Not to mention, the daughter wants to spend time with her mother while her mother still recognizes her but won’t fly to where her mother lives? It is called personal responsibility………..did this phrase get dropped from the English language recently?!? Stop blaming others for your own stupid decisions!

  • Nathan Witt

    I don’t have any experience with relatives or loved ones who suffer from dementia, but if MY mother began to develop such a terrible disease, I wouldn’t have the first idea how to go about helping her, and I wouldn’t know what to expect, how the disease would progress, or when/whether to limit her ability to travel alone. If an airline assured me that their solution to assisting passengers with the early stages of dementia was to have a staff member accompany her to the gate or baggage claim area, and if they offered a pass to allow me to come through security to meet her at the gate, then I would likely take them at their word that this is an acceptable arrangement, and I’d expect them to do what they said. And unless YOU have been in a similar situation, you don’t know, either, so perhaps we could ease up on the OP. It’s easy to armchair quarterback the situation after the fact, but it remains true that 1) the OP’s mother was able to get to the airport and board the plane without incident, which means that, with adequate assistance, she can get herself around an airport and to a gate just fine, and 2) had AA done what it promised, everything would have gone smoothly as planned. The OP’s request (that AA does what it promises, or else stop offering to serve passengers like her mother) is reasonable.

  • Elisa

    The husband of the passenger accompanied her to the gate, she did not negoitate the terminal alone.


    But Ms. Mueller actually said in her post that her mother is at the point where she cannot travel alone. She began her letter of complaint with that information.

  • Susie

    That’s true, so I initially felt the way everyone else, questioning why she sent her off alone, if she couldn’t travel alone….but then I thought about my mom’s situation. In the beginning, she was capable but you always worried about the one time she would get lost…so there was always someone to accompany her to the store, etc, not because she needed us to watch her every movement but in the event that she would make the wrong turn, we could point her in the right direction. If her mom is in the beginning stages, she’s still pretty independent and can travel by herself, however it’s a good idea to have someone with her, hence why people are saying that’s why Ms. Mueller should have traveled with her. But if she’s sitting on a plane, she’s not wandering anywhere or driving herself so doesn’t need help but when she lands in a foreign city, she would need guidance.

  • Elisa

    The reason why I have such a problem with this case is that the OP wants to blame the airline for something the OP should be responsible for. Sitting on a plane may not be ‘wandering anywhere’ but things can and do go wrong everyday with air travel. If the airplane had to make an emergency landing in a different airport, who takes responsibility for the passenger then if she cannot take responsibility herself? Because at that point the passenger will be wandering around an unfamiliar airport with no one to assist her. If the OP did not know the state of her mother’s health and only learned of her dementia as a result of this travel scenario then I have some empathy. But she herself stated she has early signs of Alzheimer’s. And, as you know from experience, the symptoms really show themselves when the person is in unfamiliar environments rather than familiar ones. Sorry, but this fiasco rests solely on the OP.

  • Susie

    Super valid points…and gotta say, I totally agree with you. Taking that into consideration…and you have to…I would have to now agree with everyone that she should have travelled with her.

  • Fishplate

    Because one person put her on the plane, and the other expected to take her off the plane. Not much of a way to lose her in between. If AA does as they promise…

  • Extramail

    I bought a ticket for my mother to fly to meet her great grandchild in early August. She subsequently had to have hip replacement surgery but was cleared to fly by her doctor. In the interim, Southwest had a plane skid off the runway and passengers had to exit via a slide. We debated whether it was a good idea to take the risk that mom would face a similar situation. Ultimately, she took that chance because it is a rare occurrence. Thankfully, smooth flights in both directions but one that had to be taken into consideration. My point: the ability to fly is solely the passengers’ decision and taking risks is not always a good idea for any passenger with a disability.

  • Fishplate

    “They did also say that they are taking my feedback and working with their staff in D.C. and Greensboro to try and make sure what happened to my mom doesn’t happen again.”

    And if you aren’t flying through one of those two airports, expect the same level of empty promises. Here’s an idea – why not train /all/ your employees to better handle these situations?

  • Pat

    Traveling is very stressful, which can trigger episodes. I could see her mother going the restroom on the plane, and forgetting which seat she was in. Then possibly accuse someone of sitting in her seat. Also the flight attendant before landing could have told the mother to stay in her seat after landing and we will help you to the person waiting for her. The mother could have easily forgotten and exited the plane on her own without the flight attendant realizing it.

  • Pat

    This situation could happen regardless of how good the training is. As I mentioned in a previous post the flight attendant could have told the mother to stay in her seat after the plane lands. But with short term memory loss, the mother could have forgotten she was told that and exited the plane while the flight attendant was not looking for less than a minute. When in unfamiliar places, I walked with my dad to restrooms that were a short distance away because he could get lost.

  • Lindabator

    But when the adult refuses the assistance, they run into NEW problems – not likely to want the legal repurcussions

  • Altosk

    I’m trying to wrap my head around how the lady got off the bus and the daughter didn’t see her. Where/how did she deplane if she had to get on the bus? Don’t they just drive to one spot? Granted, I haven’t been in DCA in awhile, but…???

    And add to me the list of “uh…seriously do not let her travel alone”

  • Bill___A

    The big takeaway from this article is: “we agreed that we would never let them travel alone. “. Sure, American should “do as they say” but as my father used to say, “don’t go looking for trouble”.

  • Bill___A

    Didn’t work that well, did it…

  • Rebecca

    Ummm…. Because they’re not caregivers. They are customer service employees. Have you ever personally dealt with someone with these types of issues? My father’s mother got belligerent at his wake because she insisted one of her other sons was dead and wanted to literally pull him out of the casket when someone kindly tried to explain that Bob and not John had died. Seriously.

  • hikergirl57

    The difference here is that an “unaccompanied minor” can be expected to follow directions and take assistance. A person with dementia often will not, will escalate in behavior or agitation if assistance is needed. Especially assistance from a stranger/FA. But as a family member that went through this with a parent – it can be difficult to see your parent lose that independence and cognitive awareness. As a nurse – she made an unsafe choice for her mother and thankfully nothing bad came of it

  • JenniferFinger

    Depending on the age of the unaccompanied minor and other factors, they can’t always be counted on to follow directions and accept directions from strangers either. So I somewhat disagree with you.

  • hikergirl57

    LOL maybe that is why the airlines stop the service for older than 15. I raised my kids, and I agree, they don’t always obey. But they still would be expected to follow directions and if they didn’t, flying wouldn’t be an option again. Dementia is a whole ‘nother game.

  • JewelEyed

    I would hope that if your mother developed such a severe condition, you’d call and speak to her doctor with her permission and figure out what’s going on. Airline customer service employees are no substitute for getting information from a medical professional.

  • bayareascott

    If she can’t travel alone, then a family member should be accompanying her. End of story.

  • Fishplate

    Yes, I have. But I don’t know the OP or her mother.Maybe she made a bad decision, or maybe she doesn’t realize what burden she carries. Or maybe it was perfectly reasonable on her part – we don’t know.

    But the airline agreed to take the task. If they don’t want to do it, then don’t just change your policies at two airports – that’s my point.

  • mjhoop

    And Greensboro and DC are not all that far apart that the family could not have visited granny –by driving. What were they thinking?

  • mjhoop

    And maybe it’s time for the airlines to come into the 21st century. With so many baby boomers coming to the end of the line and unable to cross a street alone, much less deal with the hassles of airline travel, it would be a smart move to have plus-price fares just for people with these problems and crew trained to deal with the situation.

    Or perhaps they can go back to hiring nurses to do the cabin jobs.,…as they did at the beginning of the modern travel age.

    Or they can simply say, people who need this much attention are allowed to fly only if they have a full fare companion/attendant with them. Either way, they make more on tickets. Surprises me that they haven’t figured this out yet…….

    But i bet after reading these comments daughter figures out what (not) to do next time.

  • mjhoop

    Wait one minute here!
    Daughter says :………dementia related to what we believe to be Alzheimer’s for several years……
    “What we believe”!!!!! What’s that about?
    She’s not been examined, tested to determine the facts of the matter and how safe she is let out alone……???????
    She could have a brain tumor or dementia unrelated to Alzheimer’s, among other possibilities……..and whatever she suffers from should have been determined by professionals….
    This whole case sounds like amateur hour in every respect………
    But surely someone in the family was pushing dad to get a proper medical /mental assessment?????
    OTOH, having been party to this kind of geographical fracture that makes it difficult to second-guess those on the spot, maybe daughter was releuctant to do this in the first place but let her wants outstrip her mom’s capacity to co-operate. And now she has to deal with the guilt of making poor choices? I guess I feel sorry for her after all.
    And the airline employees should not have agreed to this jaunt–as a matter of (the missing ) AIRLINE POLICY.

  • cp556

    For the sheer comfort of the passenger (mother), I feel a family member could have accompanied her. When checking with AA, the daughter could have asked if the plane would come directly to the terminal, or require a bus from the tarmac to the terminal …. that extra step can prove disorienting to the best of us.

  • Jayne Bailey Holland

    Plenty of ways to lose her mom. Change of gates, Weather, Flight delay, Change of Aircraft, information not passed along to agents just coming to work. My friend put her 16 year old on a flight to college in Toronto. Because she was under 18, they requested assistance getting to her connection. We told her “speak up when you land”. Every gate agent walked away even though she was unaccompanied minor, and they had paid $100 for the assistance. (she also had a name tag from the airline) She did speak up, and a nice agent from Air Canada who was traveling on vacation helped my friends daughter get assistance. Bottom line, you can’t depend on crew or gate agents anymore. Many are part time and or work split shifts, and things just don’t get logged in a passenger record.

  • LonnieC

    I’ve had a little experience with this matter. The problem is that at the beginning of the disease there is considerable difference in what the individual can handle from time to time. The OP’s mother may have been quite capable of taking care of herself when she boarded, and at some time – with or without a “triggering event” – she may have lost that ability. And later the same day she might be quite capable again. It’s too hard to predict to take the chance the Op took.

  • Michael

    Sorry – dementia diagnosed or obvious enough to take these steps is enough you need to travel with the person – I’d price shop and spend the funds on around trip domestic flight to ensure adult accompaniment.

    For the haters: I’ve done it myself – and by car and by plane depending on the convenience and cost. It was worth it, and now that the time has passed that I cannot, I’m glad I sacrificed to do it. Yes – cancel cable, cancel internet, sacrifice to accommodate someone who has not much more left.

  • Michael

    You’re spot on – trained to fly you and 600 MPH safely, evacuate a plane in 60 seconds, perform CPR, and serve Diet Coke when all is well. When was the additional task of babysitting added? Because the airlines agreed to take Unaccompanied Minors for a fee between divorced parents they suddenly have to handle those incapable of surviving on their own. My 11 year old has flown UM to Central America – but the 80 year old Dimentia grandparent, I had trouble handling when seated next to him on the same plane as an experienced flier (experience = 100 flights a year for more than a decade).

  • JewelEyed

    If memory serves, people with a diagnosed condition meaning that they need a helper to travel with them can have their helper fly free. I think it’s part of the ADA. Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe that’s the case. It may be time to get her diagnosed and either pay a family member to get trained to take care of her or hire a professional.

  • JewelEyed

    Spot on, there are other conditions that can cause forgetfulness, confusion, and even completely forgetting what decade it is. Some of these can be fatal if not treated in a timely fashion.

  • cscasi

    Except the one who was supposed to take her off the plane could not get to the plane because it was parked on the tarmac. And she had to get on the bus and then off at the entry door to the terminal gate area in order for to her to have been found in the baggage area. Perhaps she wandered the wrong way after she got off the buy; although one would think she would have followed her fellow passengers into the arrival area. Nonetheless, she should not have been allowed to travel by herself because of her medical condition.

  • cscasi

    Except that a gate agent normally accepts the unaccompanied minor at the gate and either gives him/her to a flight attendant on the flight. Then the flight attendant in turn turns over the unaccompanied minor to the gate agent at the other end, who then turns the minor over to the person who is supposed to meet the minor there. And, there is documentation and signatures required along the way. So, there is not a lot of directions a minor has to follow.

  • JenniferFinger

    I agree that minors and dementia patients require different handling, but that doesn’t mean in and of itself that agents who currently handle unaccompanied minors can’t handle dementia patients, or that special agents can’t be hired who have the training to deal with dementia patients who become agitated.

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