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Family threatens suit after teen with autism gets kicked off flight

An Oregon family traveling with a 15-year old girl with autism was kicked of a United airlines flight for what the airline calls “a disruptive situation”
An Oregon family traveling with a 15-year old... 02:05

A vacation to Walt Disney World turned into a nightmare for an Oregon family after they were kicked off their United Airlines flight because the crew became unnerved by the behavior of their teenage daughter who has autism. The family has threatened to file suit over the incident.

According to an account posted by Donna Beegle on her Facebook page, the problem started when she asked a flight attendant if she could purchase a hot meal for her 15-year-old daughter Juliette , who will not eat cold food. The attendant told her that hot food wasn't available to passengers in coach. Children on the autism spectrum sometimes are sensitive to textures and as a result can develop quirky eating habits. They also can react badly when things don't go as expected. Juliette reportedly was crying as the result of the incident, though her family denies it was loud enough to bother other passengers. Others on the plane, however, likened the noises the teen was making to a "howl."

"The flight attendant went to ask .... a male flight attendant in First Class," Beegle writes. "He came back to tell me that they could not serve the hot food from First Class because we were in Economy. I offered to buy the rice they had. He said `no.' For 40 minutes, I kept trying to think of something that they had that she would eat. ... Frustrated, I said after she has a meltdown and tries to scratch in frustration, (would) you help her then? He said he would see what he could do. He came back, scowled at me and gave her a hot meal. I thanked him and offered to pay for it. He did not answer and went back to First Class."

When the plane was diverted to Salt Lake City, the family was stunned to learn that they were being asked to leave amidst complaints that Juliette was "scratching" someone, which Donna Beegle says wasn't true. Though they were booked on another flight, Donna Beegle says the family still feels that it's necessary to sue the airline to make sure that the crew is properly trained so that other families with children on the autism spectrum don't experience the same problem they did. Officials from Chicago-based United didn't respond to requests for comment for this story. Beegle didn't respond to a request for comment sent to her via Facebook.

United, the world's largest airline, defended the actions of the crew in statements to the press, arguing it made the "best decision for the safety and comfort of all our passengers." However, many of the comments posted about the Beegle's situation on social media were critical of the airline.

Said one commenter on Twitter: "I will never fly ‪#UnitedAirlines. My son with ‪#autism deserves respect. If the capt can't handle ‪#autistic ppl, he shldnt be flying plane."

Flight diversions like the one that happened to the Beegles are "extremely rare," according to Airlines 4 America, an airline trade group, which notes that 99.7 percent of all flights arrive at their intended destinations.

"Airline employees are well trained and equipped to make decisions, based on a variety of factors, to provide every passenger with a safe and enjoyable flying experience," writes Vaughn Jennings, a spokesman for the association, in an email to CBS MoneyWatch. He couldn't comment on the Beegle's situation.

Media reports indicate that the crew tried to deal with the Beegle family for more than an hour. Juliette, however, is a veteran flyer according to her family and didn't appear to be upset in a video posted on YouTube showing the family leaving the United flight. When concerns are raised about the behavior of a passenger, the aircraft's captain decides in consultation with the crew and others on the ground whether to remove him or her from a plane.

The U.S. Department of Transmission received 1,733 complaints about airline customer service in March 2015, up 55.1 percent from the 1,117 filed in March 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation's Air Travel Consumer Report.

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