United Airlines, already under fire for dragging a passenger off one of its planes when he refused to give up his seat, is facing another barrage of criticism for forcing a mother to hold her toddler during a 3½ -hour flight last week.
Shirley Mina Yamauchi, 47, a teacher at Kapolei Middle School on Oahu, was on her way to a conference in Boston and had paid almost $2,000 for plane tickets for herself and her son, Taizo, three months earlier.
The two flew from Honolulu to Houston without incident, but as they awaited takeoff to Boston, a passenger who had been on standby claimed the seat that Taizo was sitting in.
Yamauchi said that she explained the situation to a flight attendant, who simply said it was a full flight, shrugged and walked away.
“I had to move my son onto my lap,” Yamauchi told Hawaii News Now. “He’s 25 pounds. He’s half my height. I was very uncomfortable. My hand, my left arm was smashed up against the wall. I lost feeling in my legs and left arm.”
The airline’s own regulations require children older than 2 to have their own seat. Taizo is 2 years and 3 months old.
Yamauchi said she didn’t make a fuss because she was mindful of other recent incidents, including the case of Dr. David Dao, who was injured three months ago when he was dragged from his seat on an overbooked United flight. Video of the assault went viral, causing a PR nightmare for the airline, which promised to improve its customer service.
“I started remembering all those incidents with United on the news,” she said. “The violence. Teeth getting knocked out. I’m Asian. I’m scared and I felt uncomfortable. I didn’t want those things to happen to me.”
During the flight, Yamauchi posted pictures of the flight attendant, the passenger who took her son’s seat, and Taizo sleeping on her lap. She said of the passenger, a man from Maine in business attire, “He told me later that he was ninth on the standby list and had paid $75 for the seat.”
After landing in Boston, Yamauchi complained and her husband posted pictures from the flight on social media. Five days later, United spokesman Jonathan Guerin said in a statement, “On a recent flight from Houston to Boston, we inaccurately scanned the boarding pass of Ms. Yamauchi’s son. As a result, her son’s seat appeared to be not checked in, and staff released his seat to another customer and Ms. Yamauchi held her son for the flight.”
Yamauchi does not accept this explanation. “I had bought both these tickets way in advance,” she said. “We checked in. We did the two-hour check-in time before boarding. I have my receipts. I have my boarding pass, yet this happened.”
“We deeply apologize to Ms. Yamauchi and her son for this experience,” United said in a statement on July 5. “We are refunding her son’s ticket and providing a travel voucher. We are also working with our gate staff to prevent this from happening again.”
Yamauchi — who was named 2016 Economics Teacher of the Year by the Hawaii Council on Economic Education — told NBC News that the compensation is inadequate. “It doesn’t seem right or enough for pain and discomfort.”
Noting that Taizo could have been hurt if there had been turbulence, summed up the experience as “unsafe, uncomfortable and unfair.” She is considering legal action.