Mother of autistic man fights $100 service charge from airline

HONOLULU, HA (KGMB/WCMH) — A mother in Hawaii is fighting back against Hawaiian Airlines for a fee she says is discriminatory.

Debbie Kobayakawa says her 26-year-old autistic son, Ian Nieblas, was charged a fee for an escort through the airport. Nieblas is also legally blind and hard of hearing.

Kobayakawa says this is the first time her son has encountered this issue, having flown by himself at least four times in the last two years. No other airline has charged him for assisting him through the airport.

“She told me it would be $100 and I told her no, not going to happen,” Kobayakawa told KGMB. That’s when Kobayakawa says she asked for a security pass so she could escort her son to the gate herself.

“He knows how to fly and get on the plane, but he can’t read well enough to navigate the airport and he has challenges with directions,” she said. “I believe my son should have the same rights as anyone else.”

Louis Erteshik with the Hawaii Disability Rights Center says the airline’s practice raises questions.

“I’ve never heard of anything like that,” he said. “That’s every questionable as to whether that’s legal.”

The U.S. Department of Transportation says all airlines are required by law to provide assistance to people with disabilities. That includes enplaning and deplaning, but the law never says anything about a fee.

Hawaiian Airlines sent the following statement about the incident to KGMB:

“Our policy states that we will escort passengers with disabilities from the curb to the gate and vice-versa free of charge. If a passenger requires assistance beyond that, we do require a fee to cover the cost associated with dedicating a staff member to provide assistance for an extended period. We are looking into this situation and if it is determined that we charged this passenger in error, we will provide a refund.”

Kobayakawa says she hopes airline will retrain employees about working with individuals who have disabilities and get rid of the fee all together.

“What I want to see Hawaiian do is be in compliance with the federal law,” she said.

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