A 15-year-old autistic boy named Leo was supposed to board a plane with his caretaker from the Alicante Airport in Spain to his home in the UK on April 25th, but when they experienced a problem with airline staff, things quickly took a turn for the worse.
Leo has a small doll that helps him stay calm and comfortable during stressful situations, but the budget European airline Ryanair refused to let him board with the toy, no matter how much explaining the caretaker did about the situation. Ryanair employees told them they would need to pay a baggage fee of £25 in order to take the doll on the flight.
The carer refused the exorbitant fee, but then Leo began to have a meltdown. At that point, employees told them they would not be allowed to board at all.
Rather than offering help to the boy, who was wearing a lanyard to clearly show that he needed extra patience and assistance, airline workers called in five police officers. Leo’s mother, Helen Estella, reports that the officers made the situation worse by surrounding him, touching him, and “threatening him with injections.”
“If they had any autism awareness, they would have known this would always escalate to a meltdown,” she says.
The pair’s luggage was taken off the plane, and they were told they could not board another flight to their destination for four more days. Leo was so distressed that he had to be medicated by an airport doctor to calm him down and then placed in a wheelchair. Then his carer went to a different airline’s front desk to ask for help.
At the Jet2 desk, there was a world of difference in how Leo was treated. Staff got him a full row of seats aboard a flight scheduled for that same day, they waved the baggage fees, and two employees stayed with him until it was time to board.
“Anna and Mark were outstanding ground Jet2 staff,” Helen writes on Facebook. “They stayed with Leo from when they bought new tickets at the desk and have been sat on the floor with him as he was so frightened to board the plane trying to calm and reassure him.”
Once aboard the flight, Leo was met by cabin crew member Ellie, who sat on the floor in his row of seats and talked to him and helped him put his doll to bed, which helped distract and calm him. The pilot even stopped by to see Leo before takeoff.
Leo is now safely home and recovering from the traumatic event. Since the incident, Helen has posted about her son’s frightening experience on Facebook several times, and thousands of people have commented on and shared the story. Many are saying Ryanair’s actions were “disgraceful,” “shocking,” “disgusting,” and more.
Ryanair has apologized for the issue and asked the family to submit a complaint so that they can investigate further.
Sadly, this doesn’t seem to be the first time Ryanair staff mistreated an autistic passenger. In 2018, a 13-year-old girl with autism was removed from a flight because crew members “didn’t believe” she was traveling with a family member. The girl’s mother claims they had appropriate documentation to show that she was traveling with her godmother, but the child was removed from the flight anyway.
We can only hope the media attention surrounding this incident will prompt Ryanair to invest in autism training for their staff, as well as be a lesson to other airlines to be less like Ryanair and more like Jet2. Thank you, Jet2, for stepping up and fixing a bad situation for a young boy in distress!
Elizabeth Nelson is a wordsmith, an alumna of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, a four-leaf-clover finder, and a grammar connoisseur. She has lived in west Michigan since age four but loves to travel to new (and old) places. In her free time, she. . . wait, what’s free time?