A deaf couple accused a Delta Air Lines staffer of discriminating against them by refusing to communicate with them in a way they would understand - in writing. Instead, the couple said, the staffer rolled her eyes, the situation escalated, police were called, and they never got on their flight.
Socorro Garcia and Melissa Yingst have threatened to sue and said Delta should train its employees on how to communicate with deaf passengers.
In a statement, Delta said: "We have reviewed the situation with our Detroit team and continue to work with these customers to better understand what transpired. We take situations like these very seriously and as part of our culture of continuous improvement, we are using this as an opportunity to learn."
The dispute happened at the Detroit Metro Airport on Sunday night, when Garcia and Yingst, who were in Detroit for the National LGBTQ Task Force's Create Change conference, were heading home to California. The women said they had initially been told they would be able to sit together, even though their assigned seats were apart. At the gate, they tried to communicate their request using an iPhone, but the agent kept talking and refused to write anything down, the couple said in a Facebook video recounting their experience.
"The gate agent rolled her eyes at us. Melissa asked for her to write," Garcia said, according to a transcript the couple posted on Facebook.
After repeated requests to communicate with them in writing, the couple said the agent finally wrote on a piece of paper that the flight was full and that they can't be seated together. The couple said the agent then crumpled the paper and threw it in a trash can instead of allowing the couple to write their responses to it.
"This is an outright denial of communication access," the couple said in a statement.
The dispute continued when Garcia tried to pick up the piece of paper. She said the agent pushed her away. Yingst then began recording the encounter. And so did the agent.
A video taken by Yingst showed Garcia gesturing to the agent, who was shaking her head as she held up her phone, apparently also recording.
"You want me to call the police?" another agent can be heard asking.
"Yes, thank you," the agent responded.
"You can't come back here," the agent told Garcia, still shaking her head and holding up her phone. "No more, no more talking."
Police later arrived, the couple said. Garcia and Yingst left the airport, booked a nearby hotel and bought a different flight back to Los Angeles.
Delta acknowledged there had been challenges in communication, though the airline maintains the couple were kicked off their flight because Garcia got physical with the agent. Garcia denied doing so.
Delta also said it has refunded the passengers' tickets and is working with them on how to address the other costs they incurred. But the couple said in their statement that they have not been reimbursed for anything. They said they will pursue legal action if they're not reimbursed and if Delta doesn't train its employees on how to best communicate with deaf customers.
"This really isn't about us not being able to sit together but how they handled communication and refused to provide us access to the needs we asked for," Yingst said, according to the transcript on Facebook.
The National LGBTQ Task Force said the incident underscores the need for education, training and policies to protect impaired and disabled customers from discrimination.
"No one should have to fear that Delta will call the police on them for simply being deaf, blind, or disabled," the organisation said in a statement. "Delta should take immediate steps to prevent future incidents from occurring."