Mom plans to sue after autistic daughter removed from plane

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Tuesday, May 12, 2015
Passengers tell conflicting tales as to why teen girl with autism was removed from United flight.

PORTLAND, OR -- An Oregon woman said Monday she intends to sue United Airlines after her flight home made an emergency landing, and authorities removed her family from the plane after she and the flight crew had problems finding her autistic 15-year-old daughter something to eat.

Donna Beegle said her daughter, Juliette, can be a picky eater and sometimes lashes out if she doesn't get what she wants, but she hopes a lawsuit would lead to training for airline employees about dealing with people who have autism. "This is about a few, simple accommodations," she said.

United, however, said flight crews did make special concessions for the girl but ultimately "made the best decision for the safety and comfort of all of our customers and elected to divert to Salt Lake City after the situation became disruptive."

The conflict came May 5 on a flight home from a family trip to Disney World. The girl had refused to eat at a layover in Houston and had turned down nuts, raisins, a granola bar and Juliette's favorite blue Jolly Ranchers that the family had packed, Beegle said.

Juliette wanted a hot meal, Beegle said, so she purchased a chicken sandwich and asked for it to be warmed in a microwave. The crew refused, she said, telling her the sandwich would get soggy.

Beegle said she told flight attendants that her daughter was about to have a tantrum, and that she could scratch someone.

After about 40 minutes, Beegle said, the crew got the teen a hot serving of jambalaya from first class, "and she was perfectly happy."

Shortly afterward, however, an emergency landing in Salt Lake City was announced, and they were removed, she said.

The family of four was booked on another flight to Portland, on another carrier, United said. The airline wouldn't specify Monday whether the flight was diverted because of a perceived threat, the discomfit of other passengers or some other reason.

The airline said it wouldn't make crew members available for comment.

Beegle, an advocate for the poor, said her daughter travels frequently and has been to Europe, Mexico and nearly two dozen U.S. states, including Hawaii. She's not able to say what she wants to eat, but nothing like this has ever happened, Beegle said.

Autism is a wide-ranging disorder that can be marked by difficulty communicating and behavioral difficulties.

Some passengers have said they didn't think the girl's behavior was disruptive enough to divert the plane, but Marilyn Hedlund said she thought the flight crew did the right thing.

Hedlund said the girl had been "wailing" during the flight.

The crew "did everything in their power to calm the situation, including getting her hot food from first class," Hedlund said. "It wasn't just a snap decision."