My uncle fell “face first” — why won’t American cover his medical bills?

By | June 26th, 2016

Heather Newgen’s 88-year-old uncle is a newbie to air travel. And by “newbie” I mean he’s never flown.

His recent flight from Nashville to Los Angeles didn’t go well at all, and based on her account, it may very well be his last commercial flight.

Newgen wants us to help him, and our advocates want to try. But it’s complicated. I’ll get to the details in a second. Before I do, let me state the obvious: When it comes to air travel, nothing is obvious. That includes who is responsible when something goes wrong.

Newgen and her uncle flew from Los Angeles to Nashville for her nephew’s graduation this spring. It was a meaningful trip for her uncle. In addition to attending the graduation, they planned an excursion to Memphis, Tenn.

“He’s been a huge fan of Elvis every since I can remember,” she says. “This was a once-in-a-lifetime trip for him.”

But there was a little problem. Newgen couldn’t get her uncle on her flight because she’d booked her tickets months in advance. (Insert mandatory rant about crazy airline ticket pricing here.)

“He told me he was fine to travel alone as long as he had wheelchair assistance,” she says. “He’s very active and independent so I didn’t think twice about it. So I called the airlines and had it set up to where all he had to do was ask an agent and a wheelchair would be provided.”

And it worked — at least on the outbound flight with United Airlines.

“On the way back he was on American, and unfortunately things didn’t go as smoothly,” she says.

Related story:   “Thanks for your help, but …"

I’ll let her pick the story up from here:

He arrived to the Nashville airport around 3:30 a.m. with my mom. I was already back in LA because he stayed a day later than me. His flight was at 5:28 a.m., so he was there in plenty of time for his flight. She asked an agent who was helping others at the kiosk and with their check on luggage for a wheelchair.

The person said she couldn’t help and to wait in line at the ticket counter, which wasn’t opened yet. There was no place to sit down so my uncle stood in line with my mom. They waited 45 minutes and the ticket counter still hadn’t opened.

While they were in line, my uncle couldn’t stand any longer and he passed out without warning. He fell face first on the ground and hit a metal pole.

Five minutes later a wheelchair was provided. But why did he have to fall to get one?

He made it home safely. He went to the ER and had several tests done. Amazingly he’s OK, but American Airlines won’t cover his medical expenses, which I believe they should.

Newgen has taken this up the chain as far as she could, contacting a supervisor to ask about her uncle’s wheelchair.

“She said my request for wheelchair assistance was in the system. She told me to email customer relations, which I have twice, but nobody has contacted me.”

Newgen says she’s horrified and wants us to help her make this right.

This one is tricky. Newgen’s uncle didn’t fall as the result of the direct negligence of an airline employee. They simply didn’t deliver a wheelchair quickly enough for him, and he fell. He could have found a seat and waited.

American did provide a wheelchair for boarding. It didn’t force him to drag himself on to the aircraft like this guy.

But wait. Is this an American issue, or is the airport in any way culpable? Nashville airport says it’s the airline, but the accident happened at the airport. If a report was filed, the medical expenses might be covered by the airport. (It appears a report wasn’t filed.)

And what about Newgen’s uncle’s own health insurance? Wouldn’t it cover the ER visits back in California?

Honestly, our advocates struggled with this one. We want to help but we aren’t sure who to turn to for assistance. And so we turn this over to you, dear readers. Should we get involved? If so, who should get the call?

Should we advocate Heather Newgen's case?

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  • JewelEyed

    If he has that much trouble standing, how did he get out and do all the things they’re talking about without a wheelchair or a walker or cane with a seat on it? It seems like he should at least have a cane with a built in seat with him at all times if he is at risk of fainting and falling down if he stands too long. I’m not saying this to invalidate what happened, but for his own safety, perhaps this should be a step taken in the future.

  • RichardII

    When will people ever start taking responsibility for their own lives. Either the LW’s mother or uncle should have made sure he found a seat while waiting for the wheelchair.

  • taxed2themax

    This is one is tough.. There is the Air Carrier Access Act (14 CFR 382), but a casual reading appears to tell me this applies largely after the passenger checks-in — essentially at boarding and beyond — and not before check-in; as appears to be the case here… Carriers do have liability for some “facilities” to the extent that … ” Facility means all or any portion of aircraft, buildings, structures, equipment, roads, walks, parking lots, and any other real or personal property, normally used by passengers or prospective passengers visiting or using the airport, to the extent the carrier exercises control over the selection, design, construction, or alteration of the property.” It’s the last part of ” … to the extent the carrier exercises control over the selection, design, construction, or alteration of the property.” that, from a layman’s view point, may be problematic asserting any ACAA related claims as the “line” does not (to me) meet any of the tests listed in .382
    I also doubt the airport as a
    public entity — the Metropolitan Nashville Airport Authority (MNAA) — has any legal liability as well.. I am just not sure there is a sustainable claim here..
    As Chris notes, I see several possible options that >could< have been taken before it got to the point of a fall — but again, I wasn't there to see the actual series of events (and it also sounds like the OP was not there either — so there is an element of second-hand information in play as well) so there could be other facts missing that might change the reality.
    I think you could advocate — but only to the extent of seeing who — IF ANYONE — has liability here… The fact that he fell, does not, to me, automatically mean someone other than the passenger, should be or is, liable.

  • Michael__K

    The passenger took responsibility and reserved the wheelchair assistance they required and arrived at the airport at the time recommended by the airline.

    When will businesses take responsibility for following their own published rules and policies (like opening their counters by the published opening time) and for complying with federal regulations?

  • Michael__K

    Actually, the DOT regulations apply from the point of entry to the terminal. The “requirement includes assistance in accessing key functional areas of the terminal, such as ticket counters and baggage claim.”

  • Chris_In_NC

    Actually, The published hours for the AA ticket counter is 4AM – 7PM. ( If the OP arrived at 3:30AM, then the ticket counter would be closed as per their published hours

  • Chris_In_NC

    I do not feel that this case should be mediated. If the OP feels strongly that AA shares some of the liability, then she should pursue legal action, rather than consult a consumer advocacy team.

    I’m not blaming the OP, but if she was that concerned about his ability to travel, she should have booked him on the same flights. I find it hard to believe that the flights were completely sold out, rather what seems more likely is that the flights were more expensive than the flights she ultimately chose.

    Second, I find it hard to believe that there aren’t ANY seats within proximity of the ticketing check-in. If I were accompanying a family member that potentially had mobility issues, I would have them sit down nearby while I waited in line.

    Third, if he were that prone to falls, why didn’t he have an assistance device (ie cane, walker, or wheelchair) while he was waiting in line. If he were that prone to falls, it could have occurred anywhere (waiting for a bus, waiting in line at the grocery store).

    Why are there multiple ER visits? I can understand an initial ER visit, but multiple ones? Isn’t there follow-up care that would be provided by his regular doctor? What exactly does the OP want? If you believe there was liability, at most, the reimbursement should be out of pocket medical expenses.

  • Annie M

    Exactly – that is the same as JFK. Having recently watched how they operate at that hour at JFK, none of the employees even came out until 4 AM so the wheelchair person they saw probably wasn’t even on duty yet, which is probably why she told the Uncle she couldn’t help him.

  • Michael__K

    The passenger fell after 45 minutes, i.e. around 4:15am, with the counter still closed (and the baggage checkin deadline fast approaching)

    If the terminal was open, then mobility services need to be provided to passengers who need it and registered for it in advance.

  • Annie M

    Airports usually don’t open their check in until somewhere around about 4 AM. Thus, employees aren’t there that early ready to start work until about that time. And for those that are, they aren’t going to start a minute before their time to start begins. I recently watched this at JFK when we arrived at 3:30 for a 5:30 AM flight. Not a sole at the check in windows or anyone with wheelchairs or anything else. There were two employees at a priority passenger kiosk but they wouldn’t talk to anyone until 4 AM.

    I am not certain why Heathers Mom couldn’t have stood in line while the Uncle sat and he could have been called to join her when check in opened.

    And I am not sure why his insurance didn’t cover the bills. There really shouldn’t be any money out of pocket for the Uncle – if there was, then the airport should be covering anything that wasn’t covered.

  • Michael__K

    The ticket counter wasn’t open as of 4:15am (even though passengers are advised to arrive at least 90 minutes before their flight…)

    If the terminal is open services to disabled passengers must be provided.

  • Annie M

    Even if the airport is not technically open until 4AM?

  • Annie M

    He may not have been normally prone to falls. At that hour of the morning, standing in one spot can cause this as well as if he didn’t have anything to eat or drink. That can make anyone who normally doesn’t have issues suddenly pass out.

  • Alan Gore

    Take the case. AA was definitely negligent in not providing a wheelchair, especially in view of the unusual checkin delay.

  • The agent at the kiosk directed them to stand in line and wait for the wheelchair. Her uncle did as directed by the airline. There was no place to sit down.
    The uncle relied on information given by the airline to his detriment. Especially when the airline failed to provide the wheelchair within a reasonable time. American is a least partially responsible for this.
    Also note that most insurance has deductibles so yes, it is reasonable to seek compensation for breach of promise.

  • Michael__K

    I could easily envisioning this happening to my Mom, and she doesn’t have any trouble standing and she’s never fallen before.

    She can visit places and enjoy herself but she needs to take breaks and sit down. When she flies she requests mobility assistance because 1/4+ mile of continuous walking in a major airport or 45-60 minutes of standing for security is too much for her, especially around 4am in the morning (probably on an empty stomach because she wouldn’t be able to eat that early).

    I’ve suggested to her and others have suggested she consider various mobility aids, but (a) lugging them around (e.g. past stairs) can make them more trouble than they are worth and (b) she’s too proud to use them anyway.

    Anyway, in this case there should have been absolutely no issue, because the airport terminal, when it’s open, is supposed to be helping passengers who registered for assistance, per federal regulations.

  • Michael__K

    If the airport is not open, how did she get inside?

  • CC Gorman

    This comment doesn’t address responsibility for this episode
    An 88-year-old who has a syncopal episode and hits his face/head on a hard object should NOT be allowed to fly an hour later without medical evaluation. Passing out is worrisome, but even seemingly minor head trauma at that age can lead to intracranial bleeding and death.
    He could easily have lost consciousness and died on the plane.

  • AAGK

    Mother’s fault he fell. Why didn’t he sit while she waited for him. Medicare covers his costs so he isn’t out anything.

  • AAGK

    How would sitting in a wheel chair be any different from sitting on a bench or chair? Why was he standing. The mother should have waited on line for him.

  • AAGK

    I’ve never heard of an airport with nowhere to sit. Why not sit on the floor against a wall then.

  • Michael__K

    Yes, he should have sat down. In my experience, typically if there is no wheelchair immediately available, there is a staging area where wheelchair passengers and their travel companions are supposed to be redirected to sit.

    But that didn’t happen here. And I can understand why they may have been stressed with other concerns. Her mom may not have wanted to leave him alone. Also, she might not have been able to checked him in and his bag (if any) unless he was present in front of an agent.

    From other cases we’ve seen here, if the passenger is waiting in line 75 minutes before departure, and then they miss the checked baggage cut-off or they aren’t through security and at the gate 30+ minutes before departure, everyone blames the passenger for arriving too late.

    And yet if the counters aren’t even open yet (even though they are supposed to be) no one sees any problem with that?

  • Annie M

    At 4 AM, there is really little danger of them missing check in and getting through security. It took 5 minutes to get through security at JFK a few months ago when I arrived at 4 AM for a 5:30 AM Flight.

  • Michael__K

    I agree that early morning is usually better, but there are no guarantees. It can take 5 minutes or 90+ minutes.

    Funny you mention JFK– I once arrived before 3am for an AA flight leaving around 5:30am. I was in the (long) security line before 3:30. There was only one security lane at that hour, and the line for economy passengers was literally moving backwards. First/business class passengers and passengers on some flight that was leaving at 4-something-AM had priority, and the few screeners couldn’t even keep up with that demand. It wasn’t until about 4:45/4:50am when a flood of agents arrived for work and opened up additional lanes that things started moving forward. I did not get to the gate area within 30 minutes of departure, so I guess they could have given my seat away. There was no time to get breakfast as I had intended.

  • Jeff W.

    I say no, only because this is the realm where lawyers should be involved, not consumer advocates.

    AA is not entirely at fault. The request was made for a wheelchair and it was in the system. The OP arrived at the airport before the airport was open, so it is unlikely wheelchairs were available at 3:30 AM. It would be really up to a judge to determine how much AA was at fault and how much the uncle was (arrived too early, didn’t sit down, etc…)

  • Michael__K

    Medicare comes with a $1,288 hospital deductible and 20% coinsurance among other expenses (some of which could be offset by supplementary insurance).

  • Inquirer1111

    My wife could have fallen too — that is why he has her own wheelchair provided by health insurance. If he was that at risk of falling, he should have sat down or have his own wheelchair paid for by Medicare.

  • I’ve been in airports where all the seating is behind the security checkpoint. And telling a balance impaired 88 year old person to sit on the floor? Really? They’ll never get back up!

  • AAGK

    Better than standing and passing out. He could have cracked his head open and died instantly. I also don’t know why this family booked him on a 5:30 am flight. Obviously the staffing is more limited then and this man had special needs. I’ve never seen an airport with at least a bench in the front. I guarantee someone would’ve gotten up for him.

  • AAGK

    No negligence- lack of causation.

  • Lindabator

    Correct – the counter hours are listed, and if no one is available, he could have sat down in the seats up front, close to the counter and waited. And if he already had someone else with him, she could easily have waited in “line” if there was one.

  • Lindabator

    still not someone else’s fault – he did not have to stand in the line, but could have waited in a seat instead

  • Lindabator

    NOT unusual — he arrived earlier than the counters at the airport open — he could have taken a seat until the employees were around – and that is what others in his circumstance would do (and HAVE DONE – I know, as have clients with this issue)

  • Michael__K

    And then if he missed the baggage checkin deadline or wasn’t at the gate 30 minutes before departure, wouldn’t you blame him for not being on line early enough?

  • joycexyz

    What unusual check-in delay? He gets a wheelchair after check-in, not before. And it’s hard to believe there was nowhere to sit.

  • joycexyz

    Absolutely! Or at least a cane or a walker. It’s hard to believe he went sightseeing without some kind of support. Should have had it with him.

  • Michael__K

    What seats up front? This isn’t the departure gate. Ticket and baggage counters don’t normally have seats nearby.

  • Annie M

    I agree

  • Annie M

    At that hour of the morning you will not miss baggage check in. There are no lines that early in the morning.

  • Annie M

    Agreed. At JFK there was plenty of seating before check in opened and I am sure other airports are the same.

  • Annie M

    Taking many flights at 5:30 AM I find that odd. Check in always opens around 4 am and if there is no one to check you in before that, how can there be long security lines at 3:30? There usually is one security line that early and it still only takes me 5 minute to get through. And I have TSA precheck and there are no precheck lines that are even open that early so I wait just like anyone else.

  • Regina Litman

    My Yes vote was a Leans Yes vote, so I can understand the pelple who voted No. Even if the uncle’s health insurance – and it’s probably Medicare in this instance – were to cover his medical costs, insurers and other health plans go through a process called subrogation to collect what they paid out when there was an incident that may have been another party’s fault. Also, the uncle may have been out deductibles and co-payments. Patients are now charged up to a $200 deductible (maybe even more) for emergency room visits that don’t lead to a hospitalization.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    What exactly would you advocate for in this case? There aren’t any damages, he very fortunately was okay after the fall AND the letter writer has already said he’s probably never going to fly again so a credit on a future flight (by the far the most likely outcome) is useless. Still sounds like it should be easier than that to get a wheelchair, though.

  • Michael__K

    Depends on the terminal. This morning, JFK had 4 flights with scheduled departure times between 3:50am and 4:40am. Then there are 15 or 20 flights a day scheduled to depart between 1am and 3:30am. If one or more of those flights have significant delays and spill over into the post-4am period, security may not be equipped to deal with the situation, as I found at.

  • Sharon

    If Heather’s uncle is 88, it is entirely possible that her mother is not much younger than that. Even if she is “only” 80, she would also probably not be able to stand in a line for the 45 minutes until the check-in counter opened.

  • AAGK

    Good point.

  • MarkKelling

    There are many medical conditions where people are easily able to walk miles, but pass out when standing motionless for extended periods of time. And this is possibly the first time it happened to him. Also, many of the touristy things they did probably provided seating along the way so the total time standing was at least broken up by sitting.

  • RichardII

    Huh… Where was it reported that the airline told the uncle he could not sit down. He managed to walk all the way yo the gate, maybe he could have walked a few feet further to find a seat.

  • Michael__K

    Quoting the article:

    The person said she couldn’t help and to wait in line at the ticket counter, which wasn’t opened yet. There was no place to sit down

    This is typical of departure ticket and baggage check halls (photo of BNA:

    You have to check bags (before the cut-off time) and go through security before you can proceed to a gate.

    And how does anything you write excuse ignoring the Air Carrier Access Act?

  • Mike H

    I’m curious as to why he went to the
    ergency room most likely six+ hours after the fall. Call me crazy, but were they looking for lawsuit material? And he could have sat on the floor or on a suitcase. Standing was a choice.

  • RichardII

    still no sympathy here. If I were the mom id have told the counter person I’d be right back and found uncle somewhere to sit. If I were the uncle, and the really was nowhere to sit, I’d have sat in the floor. One thing I would not have done was to stand there until I fainted.

  • Michael__K

    The “counter person” was not from AA and obviously couldn’t care less.

    If the 88-year old uncle couldn’t get up off the floor, I can only assume you would still have no sympathy and belittle him for sitting down in the first place.

    He didn’t need sympathy. He just needed his airline to follow their obligations under the law.

  • RichardII

    Fine, the uncle can pass out and blame AA. having someone to blame is always a winning strategy for sympathy. Taking control of your own life and avoiding situations that place you in jeopardy isn’t nearly as much fun, and you don’t get to complain as much either.

  • Michael__K

    Or you can complain and blame elderly people with disabilities for not staying locked in their homes and daring to depend on businesses complying with laws….

  • RichardII

    There is no law anywhere that required AA to provide a seat while waiting for a wheelchair. That is the customer’s responsibility.

  • Michael__K

    False. ACAA applies from the airport entrance.

    All carrier facilities must currently include one accessible route from an airport entrance to ticket counters, boarding locations and baggage handling areas. These routes must minimize any extra distance that wheelchair users must travel compared to other passengers to reach these facilities. Outbound and inbound baggage facilities must provide efficient baggage handling for individuals with a disability, and these facilities must be designed and operated so as to be accessible. There must be appropriate signs to indicate the location of accessible services.

  • RichardII

    There is nothing you wrote that was violated. AA did not prevent anyone from sitting down. Why can’t you accept that the uncle has any responsibility at all for not finding a place to sit.

  • Michael__K

    I understand your theory is that the promised accessible services mean nothing and that disabled passengers should just sit on the ground (and then you will also hold them responsible for getting up without assistance).

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