Traveling with a toddler can get pretty awful, but nothing could have prepared Shirley Yamauchi for this nightmare. The mom was forced to carry her 2-year-old son on her lap for for three and a half hours on—you guessed it—United Airlines, after the airline took the toddler's seat and sold it to a standby passenger.
You'd think that United would get its act together after negative news of how they've treated passengers—especially families. In case you've forgotten, they've done things to make parents seething mad, such as left an unaccompanied minor alone in an airport, stood by doing nothing when a drunk passenger harassed a mom and daughter, banned kids of employees from wearing leggings while flying on non-revenue tickets, and most recently, a baby passed out on a plane that had been sitting delayed on a hot tarmac for hours. And this isn't even United's first squabble over a toddler's paid seat this year—they booted a family off a flight back in May.
This time, it was a mom traveling alone with her toddler. Yamauchi, a middle school teacher from Hawaii, was headed to a teacher's conference in Boston last week.
Everything seemed squared away. She bought the airline tickets for her and her son, Taizo, three months ago for almost $1,000 per ticket. The seven-hour flight from Hawaii to Houston and five-hour layover went pretty smoothly. They even checked in two hours before boarding their Boston-bound plane and had their receipts and boarding passes ready. Both mom and son had their tickets scanned for boarding.
But as they sat, waiting for takeoff, a flight attendant came over and asked Yamauchi if she was the boy's mother. Yamauchi said yes and the flight attendant left. Then a male passenger boarded and claimed the seat was his. The standby passenger had the same seat number as Taizo, 24A, and paid $75 for the seat.
"It was very shocking. I was confused. I told him, 'I bought both of these seats.' The flight attendant came by, shrugs and says, 'Flight's full,'" the mom told ABC's KITV4.
Yamauchi could only move her son, who was 25 pounds and half her height, to her lap. Photos she sent news stations show the toddler crammed against her legs in different sleeping positions with a container of milk balanced on her armrest. The mom said she lost feeling in her legs and left arm.
"Not a single airline employee on that flight asked me why I had a large child on my lap," she told Chron. "I didn't feel safe or comfortable, but I really didn't have a choice."
Though Yamauchi said she wanted to speak up, she was afraid of retaliation.
"I started remembering all those incidents with United on the news. The violence. Teeth getting knocked out. I'm Asian. I'm scared and I felt uncomfortable. I didn't want those things to happen to me," she said.
In April, a passenger—bloodied and mumbling, "Kill me"—was dragged off a United plane in Chicago after refusing to leave an overbooked flight. Other incidents on United include a mom being groped and sexually harassed by the passenger besides her, passengers leaving the plane after being spooked by a pilot's rant and, most recently, a baby losing consciousness while the plane sat delayed on a hot tarmac for hours.
The Federal Aviation Administration strongly urges children be in a separate seat. "Your arms aren't capable of holding your child securely, especially during unexpected turbulence," the guidelines read.
After landing, Yamauchi had no help from the flight crew and agents at the gate. She was redirected multiple times from agents to customer service, to a hotline number and even to the baggage area. She was eventually told that if she wanted a refund at that time, the airline would have to cancel the rest of her flight arrangements, so she should wait until her flight back to Hawaii to file her complaint.
After she spoke with media outlets (and five days after the flight), the airline finally issued an apology.
"On a recent flight from Houston to Boston, we inaccurately scanned the boarding pass of Ms. Yamauchi's son. As a result, her son's seat appeared to be not checked in and staff released his seat to another customer and Ms. Yamauchi held her son for the flight. We deeply apologize to Ms. Yamauchi and her son for this experience. We are refunding her son's ticket and providing a travel voucher. We are also working with our gate staff to prevent this from happening again," the company said in a statement to KITV4.