‘It’s just heartbreaking’: Swoop Airline refuses to let woman with Huntington’s disease board flight

An Alberta woman living with Huntington’s disease was refused her seat on a Swoop flight because of her involuntary movements and now the airline is refusing to allow her to fly unaccompanied despite being offered a doctor’s note stating she is capable of travelling alone, according to her family.

The airline tells CBC News she must travel with an attendant because — from the airline’s perspective — she can’t fly on her own.

Angela Weeks lives in Castor, Alta., with her husband Keith and their three daughters.

Seven years ago, Angela was diagnosed with Huntington’s disease, a rare, genetic neurodegenerative condition. She’s been symptomatic for about a decade.

Angela was supposed to travel from one sister’s home in Brandon, Man., to another’s in Abbotsford, B.C. on Sunday but at the airport, airline staff refused to let her on the flight. 

“She was going to get to go on a little holiday to see her family and I get kind of a break from being a caregiver,” said Keith from his car after driving five hours to pick up his wife.

“Then someone does something like this. It’s just heartbreaking.”

Keith Weeks, left, says Swoop Airline staff refused to allow his wife Angela, middle, to board her flight from Manitoba to B.C. because of the involuntary movements she suffers from with Huntington’s disease. The family is pictured here with the couple’s three daughters as well as Keith’s brother and sister-in-law. (Submitted by Keith Weeks)

This week, Keith got what he calls a “mini vacation,” staying with a friend in Big River, Sask. with his three daughters. 

On Sunday, he got a call from his sister-in-law.

Staff at the Swoop counter had refused to allow Angela to board the airplane. They’d expressed concern about her involuntary movements and what it would mean for other passengers.

Keith says his wife’s tics all but disappear when she settles and relaxes. That’s what her sister, Natalie Degerness was trying to explain to the Swoop employee.

Still, Angela was turned away.

Airline says Angela ‘unfit’ for travel alone

Airline employees put a note on her file saying she had to travel with a companion and a doctor’s note. Keith says there will be a time when his wife’s disease will make those things necessary but for now, she’s capable of flying unaccompanied. 

Angela’s sister also says she is fine to fly on her own. She can feed herself, get dressed, walk, and use the washroom, according to Degerness, who says even the offer of a doctor’s note was refused by the airline. 

In a written statement provided to CBC News, Swoop disputed that saying Angela will only be allowed to travel on its flight in the future if she has “an attendant that can provide her assistance.”

The airline said its staff had determined Angela was “unfit to safely travel unaccompanied.”

Swoop apologized to Angela “for the disruption to her travel plans and any resulting discomfort and inconvenience.”

‘They screwed things up’

After being turned away at the airport, Angela’s sister and Keith made plans to meet in Regina on Monday. That meant a 10-hour round-trip for Keith and nearly eight hours for Degerness.

“I don’t think they realize just how much they screwed things up for people,” said Keith. 

At the very least, he wants to see the airline offer compensation for the extra traveling.

Finally, Keith wants airline employees to “handle things with some dignity and show some class.”

“I can understand being concerned about her movements and stuff for the person next to her, that they might get a little bit annoyed but, maybe take the time and get the [flight attendant] to explain to the people she’s sitting with what she has.”

‘Scary’ for the kids

The family wants Swoop to explain what was said to the consulting nurse which resulted in the refusal to board. They believe the employee lied about her abilities in order to keep her off the flight. 

Events like this make a punishing disease even more difficult for the Weeks family.

Angela’s movements mean people often stare at her, point, and sometimes laugh, says Keith.

She can no longer play sports and it’s even hard for her to play with her kids.

Plus, their three daughters each have a 50 per cent chance of being diagnosed with Huntington’s disease so when they witness their mom’s struggles, Keith says, “it’s scary for them.”

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