Absurdly Driven looks at the world of business with a skeptical eye and a firmly rooted tongue in cheek. 

How long is a night?

I only ask because of an accusation last weekend that American Airlines had left a woman overnight in a wheelchair at Chicago's O'Hare Airport.

The family said that they'd been assured her flight was on time and that she'd be looked after.

Instead, the flight was canceled and, said Olimpia Warsaw's family, she'd been left in her wheelchair for hours, with no means of getting to the hotel that American Airlines had provided for her.

The family insisted that a porter had told Warsaw that his shift was over and there was nothing more he could do for her.

Warsaw, they said, has difficulties communicating. She also has Parkinson's and diabetes.

At the time, American apologized. Now, however, the airline may be slightly less apologetic.

It's offered me a detailed timeline gathered, it says, from viewing security footage.

The airline now says that the porter, instead of abandoning Warsaw immediately, called her relative Claude Coltea twice to arrange for her to be picked up.

This was, indeed, after midnight on Saturday morning. And the porter did, says the airline, drop her off at the wheelchair waiting area at 12.30 a.m.

However, the airline's log contains these details: 

12:32 a.m. CT: Ms. Warsaw uses her walker to go outside via UL Door 3D to smoke a cigarette for seven minutes

12:39 a.m. CT: Ms. Warsaw returns inside after smoking.

1:12 a.m. CT: Ms. Warsaw uses her walker to go outside via UL Door 3D a second time to smoke a cigarette for six minutes.

In essence, says the airline, Warsaw was only left alone for 45 minutes, before two relatives came to pick her up at 1.13 a.m.

Here's where the airline's log becomes even more interesting. 

1:48 a.m. CT: The female relative stops and takes a picture of Ms. Warsaw sitting in the wheelchair, then leaves Ms. Warsaw sitting there and walks towards TSA Checkpoint 6. 

This may be the picture used in the original CBS Chicago story to show that Warsaw had been abandoned "overnight."

An American spokesperson told me the airline is still concerned about the 45 minutes that Warsaw was, indeed, left alone.

I get the sense, though, that the airline isn't happy that the family may have made exaggerated claims.

The airline spokesperson told me of its initial apology and refund of Warsaw's fare: 

We responded based on the facts we had at that time, which changed once we obtained the CCTV footage.

I contacted Warsaw's family for their views. Family member Julian Coltea told me: 

There was a significant amount of time that she was alone.

He added that Warsaw's son, Claude Coltea had found contacting American difficult: 

Claude called American, couldn't get through, and after some time they called him back, let him know she was at the hotel, while at the same time he got a call from the porter stating that she was in fact with him at the airport. Soon after that, Claude called the porter back to try to coordinate arrangements with the family to arrive, but the porter explained that he had already gone home because his shift was ended.

Airlines are in a very difficult position with such incidents. 

They don't want bad publicity. Their instinct is to apologize, offer compensation and hope it all goes away very quickly.

After all, one lingering incident can change the perception of an airline. Just ask United, still trying to get beyond its perception of, well, aggression toward passengers.

Perhaps some passengers now try to take advantage of airlines' poor public perception.

However, just as passenger cellphone footage can reveal the truth of a dispute, so, presumably does the airline's own security footage -- though American hasn't yet released that footage.

Julian Coltea offered me a conciliatory note to the tale: 

In the end there was a general lack of communication and coordination between the airline, the porter, and the family. Our hope is that the porter service works with the airline and families in the future to make this process less worrisome for families and passengers themselves, as well as accepting responsibility that this could have been handled better.

Published on: Dec 4, 2018
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