Family’s canceled flight brings attention to plight of disabled passengers

Amy Graves, accompanied by her service dog, Kharma, check in at McCarran International Airport and await their flight to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Thursday Feb. 5, 2014. Graves, who suffers from muscular dystrophy, was refused a seat by Virgin Air on her original flight because of her ventilator.

Amy Graves

Stuart Graves and his wife, Amy, accompanied by her service dog, Kharma, check in at McCarran International Airport and await their flight to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Thursday Feb. 5, 2014. Amy, who suffers from muscular dystrophy, was refused a seat on her original flight by Virgin Air because of her ventilator. Launch slideshow »

Amy Graves has been a big fan of Virgin America Airlines for years.

But she, her husband and her sister felt like they had been betrayed by an old friend this week when their travel plans went awry, thanks to the sudden enforcement of a rule that the family — and apparently the airline — didn’t know existed.

Graves, 55, is a wheelchair-bound quadriplegic battling muscular dystrophy.

Her family, knowing that Amy’s time to spend with friends across the country is shrinking as the effects of the disease progresses, flies somewhere to visit people about every six weeks.

Her husband, Stuart Graves, has a successful three-office oral surgery practice in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., and can afford the frequent travel.

Their airline of choice: Virgin America, which the family has flown first class for five years because the airline’s planes have seat-side electrical outlets — an important amenity because Amy Graves flies with a Pulmonetics LTV 950 ventilator that she plugs in on flights.

Stuart Graves is accustomed to the travel rigors. The family always buys the front seat in the first-class cabin. After Amy is wheeled onto the plane ahead of other passengers, Stuart lifts her off the chair and into her seat. The ventilator, a necessity for his wife to breathe in the pressurized cabin, is plugged in and turned on when the flight begins.

The Graveses are so loyal to Virgin America that they don’t mind the inconvenience of changing planes in Los Angeles or San Francisco for a trip between Washington and Las Vegas.

“We love them and have even praised them in travel forums,” Stuart said. “We’re Gold Card members. We get to use their airport lounges and it’s like they know us personally.”

That is why Stuart said what happened in Las Vegas “was like a friend just slugged me in the gut.”

After arriving at McCarran International Airport last Friday and spending time at a condominium in Las Vegas over the weekend, the family received an email from Virgin telling them they couldn’t be accommodated on a flight to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., via Los Angeles, where they were planning to attend a family reunion.

The email, from Virgin’s guest relations department, told Amy Graves that she could bring her ventilator with her but couldn’t use it on the flight. The email also asked for documentation to bring Amy Graves’ emotional support animal — a German shepherd named Kharma — on the flight.

Kharma is trained to pick up objects Amy Graves may drop and return them to her.

“We couldn’t believe it,” Amy Graves’ sister, Sara Smith, said. “We’ve flown Virgin America for years. They flew Amy and her service dog to Las Vegas on Friday. How could this have happened?”

Click to enlarge photo

A Virgin America passenger jet taxis to a gate after landing at McCarran International Airport Monday, April 22, 2013. Sir Richard Branson, Virgin Group founder, was among those celebrating the new Virgin America service between Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

The email arrived Monday morning referencing the family’s Wednesday afternoon departure. Virgin offered to refund the tickets and book them on flights on other airlines that are certified to allow inflight use of the ventilator.

“We reached out to Ms. Graves three days ahead of her scheduled flight to let her know her ventilator would not be permitted to be used on her upcoming flight and apologized to the extent she was given contrary information or permitted to use the device in the past,” said Jennifer Thomas, a spokeswoman for Virgin America. “We offered to book her first-class, full-fare ticket on her same date of travel on another carrier that is certified to allow the use of this particular ventilator inflight so she would be able to travel to her intended destination as planned.”

In addition, Thomas said the airline offered to refund her full fare and is offering to convert mileage accumulated in its loyalty program to cash so it could be used to purchase tickets on other airlines.

Virgin America’s website has a list of 23 portable oxygen concentrators that can be used during flights, but the list doesn’t include Amy’s Pulmonetics LTV 950 ventilator.

“Each airline has to work with the Federal Aviation Administration to approve every specific pressurized device for safe use onboard, and Virgin America has obtained certifications for a number of most common oxygen devices,” Thomas said. “Not all airlines are approved for such devices. To obtain approval, the airline has to conduct extensive safety testing of the specific device inflight without fellow guests onboard.”

With little experience on other airlines, the Graveses opted for the fastest trip to Fort Lauderdale — a nonstop flight between McCarran and Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on Southwest Airlines.

But choosing Southwest introduced a new problem. The entire trip would have to have the ventilator operating on battery power. The ventilator battery’s charge lasts about three hours; the flight to Fort Lauderdale takes just over 4 1/2 hours. And Amy had only one battery.

After making the decision to fly Southwest, the family scrambled to find another battery. There were none in Las Vegas, but the family got a lead on one from a Florida-based ventilator repair company. A fully charged battery was available — in Salt Lake City. After making a few telephone calls, arrangements were made to fly the battery to Las Vegas. Stuart picked it up at McCarran about 12 hours before the family made its way to the airport to fly out Thursday morning.

They arrived in Fort Lauderdale on Thursday afternoon with enough time to catch the end of the family reunion.

“It was amazing that everything worked out,” Smith said. “We worked about 14 hours straight to find and bring in the battery.”

The family chose to tell their story to call attention to airline policies regarding the treatment of disabled passengers.

After spending some time in Florida, the family will complete its trip back to Washington.

They won’t be flying Virgin America.

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