“Give me your tired. Your poor. Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” But don’t bring me a 425-pound, one-legged woman in a wheelchair, even if her home is in the Bronx.
A would-be passenger named Vilma Soltesz died nine days after she was denied boarding on three homeward-bound aircraft departing Budapest and Prague.
“All we wanted was to come back home to get her treatment,” her husband, a solid Staten Island security guard told news sources. From his workaday ferries, Vilma’s husband must be almost able to read those immortal words etched on Lady Liberty.
In a previous blog we discussed airline policies with respect to flying obese passengers – the need for seatbelt extenders, the stipulation that the armrest must go down, often the need for an extra seat, and Air Canada’s humanity in treating obesity as a medical condition. We also mentioned the discomfort imposed on seatmates.
On the way to Budapest, flying on Delta and KLM metal, the Soltesz’s bought two seats for Vilma. In Hungary, kidney disease and diabetes added water weight to her girth. On the way back, KLM in Budapest couldn’t handle her. A spokesperson for KLM reportedly said “it was not physically possible for her to board the aircraft.” But apparently they were already seated when they were told to exit the aircraft. There may have been a seatbelt-extender issue. There may or may not have been an all-you-can-eat of gourmet excuses on the part of KLM.
They were advised to drive five hours to Prague and catch a Delta flight. But there the airline told them the standard-issue plastic wheelchair could not hold Vilma. “We were physically unable to board her on the aircraft,” a Delta spokesperson said. (Am I making this up or are these news reports I’m reading real?)
So now the Solteszes go back to their vacation home in Hungary (hope dies last) and contact their New York-based travel agent who finds an accommodating New York-bound Lufthansa flight. But boarding the aircraft in this age of Curiosity on Mars is apparently not possible, even with help from the local fire department. Finally, the flight captain mercilessly demands the aircraft depart without Vilma. The equation moves again and the unfortunate couple return to Hungary patiently waiting for help. Waiting like some senior woman in her seat until everyone has deplaned. Even a dog gets a warm piece of the sidewalk.
Vilma dies two days later and is now buried in Hungary.
My comment: (You can skip this section, but if I didn’t think this bit was true I’d have never done the post.) This is as powerfully sad a travel story as I’ve ever heard. Yes, there’s a lawsuit in the works. And you bet it’s justified. But I can’t cast blame anywhere. I can’t intuit a size XXXL issue into a size 8 supposition. This is a complex dish with many ingredients, maybe beyond the reach of story. I’ve been on aircraft delayed by a difficult passenger to board and I’ve probably been as big a jerk about it as the next person. In this case, the airlines couldn’t handle the disability. Kidney disease and diabetes, with its sometime consequence of amputation of a limb, is, at times, both genetic and self-imposed by our own obesity. We all need to know our limitations, our strengths and weaknesses. You can’t outrun biology. All I know is life teaches us tolerance if it teaches us anything. I vow to be a better passenger, a more understanding person when it comes to the difficulties of others. RIP Vilma.