Family Wins $3 Million Verdict After Alaska Airlines Killed Their Grandma

It took over 3 years but a jury found Alaska Airlines 90% responsible for a woman’s death after she pushed her own wheelchair down an escalator, causing “traumatic head and chest injuries, along with an infection from an Achilles tendon injury.” Her remaining leg (she only had one left) was amputated but she died anyway, three months after the fall.

Alaska Airlines has been ordered to pay $3.19 million to the woman’s family for failing to provide an escort for the woman between connecting flights.

The original story from December 30, 2017 is below:

A family is suing Alaska Airlines for killing grandma.

The 75 year old woman “tumbled down an escalator in the Portland, Oregon, airport in a wheelchair” giving her injuries which required surgeries, and ultimately three months later the woman died. She was supposed to have someone pushing her in a wheelchair but surveillance footage shows her moving herself through the terminal alone.

Warning: this footage is disturbing, she’s shown pushing herself in her wheelchair down an escalator. Apparently her vision and mental faculties were limited and she thought she was heading into an elevator. She takes a tumble and injures herself greatly.

The incident happened in June when her family returned from a vacation in Hawaii.

She suffered trauma to her head and chest, a cut to her Achilles tendon and gashes on the side of her face. Several months later, her leg was amputated because of a wound to her tendon.

Kekona died the next day.

Alaska says that the woman “declined ongoing assistance in the terminal and decided to proceed on her own to her connecting flight” and says there were no notes in her reservation “cognitive, visual or auditory impairments” that would make it dangerous for her to do so.

My first thought when I heard this story was it’s the first I’ve heard of a passenger being permitted to take a wheelchair on their own without the attendant, how would the wheelchair have been returned? But she was assisted by the contractor on arrival into her own motorized wheelchair not into an airport wheelchair. And if the woman told the employee not to help her, that she could get herself to her connecting gate on her own in her electric vehicle, they would have left her to do so.

Here’s Alaska Airlines’ statement:

We’re heartbroken by this tragic and disturbing incident. After landing in Portland, Ms. Kekona was assisted into her own motorized scooter by an airport consortium wheelchair service provider who then escorted her from the aircraft into the concourse. Once in the concourse, she went off on her own. We learned from bystanders that Ms. Kekona sustained a fall while attempting to operate her own electronic chair down a moving escalator next to the A concourse elevator. We immediately called the Port of Portland Fire and Rescue, along with Port of Portland Police, who responded to the scene quickly to provide her medical treatment.

..We don’t have all the facts, but after conducting a preliminary investigation, it appears that Ms. Kekona declined ongoing assistance in the terminal and decided to proceed on her own to her connecting flight. It also appears that when her family members booked the reservation, they did not check any of the boxes for a passenger with “Blind/low vision,” “Deaf/hard of hearing,” or “Other special needs (i.e., developmental or intellectual disability, senior/elderly).” So, there was no indication in the reservation that Ms. Kekona had cognitive, visual, or auditory impairments.

Horrible all around. I’m not sure what Alaska’s contractor providing escort service should have done in this case. You want people to remain as independent as possible, but I wonder about the family sending this grandmother off to travel alone relying on the airline’s contractor to care for her.

I think I’d have wanted to fly with her if she were my own family, and if that wasn’t possible I don’t think I’d take the chance on the journey. Is that awful to say?

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. It is on the family…period! You bought an airline ticket not a grandma babysitting service! I am so tired of the lawsuits…

    But sorry for what happened to the elderly woman.

  2. Agree this is on the family. Grandma’s mental faculties were likely compromised some time ago if she miss took an escalator for an elevator. It was irresponsible of the family to allow her to travel alone.

    But this is America, where taking responsibility doesn’t allow you to participate in the litigation lotto.

  3. Cognitive or other impairments aren’t always apparent with brief interactions. Without information, no one would know there was an issue. Don’t see how this is anyone’s fault. Someone, family, friend, should have been with her. God Bless the people who literally jumped to her rescue.

  4. That’s kind of like sending your 10 year old off to fly alone, but somehow disguising him as an adult. The family needed to make sure it was safe for Grandma to fly alone, by warning the airline of all the help she needed. The sane choice would have been, of course, to send someone to fly with her, or at least to meet her at the first public spot. It sounds like the airlines escorted her out of the secure area, if I’m reading this right. That leaves the damage all on the family.

  5. The man who dropped his luggage and slid down the escalator to help her really deserves credit. He didn’t hestitate for a second.

  6. As someone who sees first hand the good, bad, and unfortunately, the ALL TOO OFTEN UGLY treatment disabled passengers face when they travel, I’m truly disappointed to see this incredible let’s all “BLAME THE VICTIM” bs beginning to emerge here.

    I can, and will, some other time after the holiday weekend discuss in greater detail the horrors disabled passengers often experience in America’s airports versus many other industrialized nations.

    My partner had Polio as a young child and is disabled. So I see things first hand when I travel with him, and hear even more, when he travels alone around the world for his work.

    For those who have seen my comments elsewhere, this is among the reasons why we never, every fly American anymore now that it has been ”USAirwaysed” after Doug Parker and his team took over that airline and brought all of the worst aspects of that awful airline with him.

    One recent trip on Southwest was simply apalling, too.

    So, please, let’s immediately stop blaming the victim or her family here. Unless you are disabled, or frequently travel with someone who is, you have NO IDEA how bad things truly are for those who are – especially in this country.

    Being neglected and abandoned by most of our airlines is only the beginning of how horrible most airlines now treat their disabled passengers.


    If you don’t believe me, ask those who are disabled or travel with someone who is.

    Or see how things go for yourself after breaking a leg and being immobile for a while…

  7. This looks like a terrible accident where no one is to blame. Who knows if Grandma wanted to fly alone. If she dismissed the airport escort, she may have also declined for her family to fly with her. She clearly has enough cognitive function to use a motorized wheelchair. She lived for a few months after the accident so I am wondering what she died from and if it was related to the accident at all.

    Bravo to the gentleman who jumped to help her.

  8. Sorry, but if she or anyone is disabled to the point where they could inadvertently harm themselves, they need to be escorted by a family member or custodian. I tired of the “blame the airline” for everything mentality.

    She declined escort, took her own wheelchair and the family did not provide full disclosure of her compromised condition.

  9. Condolences to the family. Escalators are inherently dangerous with the practical benefits outweighing the occasional accident. If installed and operating as designed, it will be difficult to hold Alaska Air, the wheelchair maker, the escalator maker, the airport, or the attendant responsible. If the family knew of a pre-existing condition and did not intervene, they may not be able to justify their accusation. If the attendant service is complimentary, I don’t see how they are responsible.

  10. @Howard Miller: I do have a disabled family member who loves to travel but is also aware of her limitations. In no way, shape or form, do I think she would mistake an escalator for an elevator. However, if she has to fly through an airport like atlanta, which is actually fairly easy to travel through, I either fl with her or hire someone to fly with her. There is much more that we need to know about this story such as how mentally aware before the accident. But, bottom line, it is incumbent upon each one of us to take responsibility for ourselves and our loved ones, especially when traveling in a wheel chair. But, to indict everyone because of your partners difficulties flying is unfair.

  11. To Howard Miller – you travel with your partner. this woman traveled by herself. She and her family are responsible for all actions – period!!

  12. None of us was actually there. And thus far, all we have, at best, is the airline, or its third party contractor’s side of the story.

    Unless anyone has personally experienced the outright neglect, abandonment, and certainly, the disrespect and humiliations disabled passengers commonly experience especially in an era of fees for virtually everything that makes tending to the needs of disabled passengers even more unpalatable to the jerks who advocate the extreme, even sadistic, business models some airlines are intent on cramming down everyone’s throats now that the industry has become Wall Street’s piggybank due to virtually no meaningful competition (aka OLIGOPOLY) anymore.

    Things like checked baggage that may be “optional” (as if, but I’ll play along for the imbeciles who think one should be charged extra for milk and sugar when they buy a cup of coffee…or pay extra for the ketchup for their hamburgers and french fries…) are anything but for most disabled passengers.

    So immediately, at a minimum, that means $50 for most flights for a disabled passenger since I have yet to see that fee waived for my partner when he travels.

    Some might argue that itself is discriminatory…but hey, I’ll leave that to legal experts to figure out.

    We simply factor that $50 additional cost in upfront for any fare search since neither of us has an affinity credit card, and while he travels hither and yon to Europe and Asia (about once per year to each), and now flies every 6-8 weeks NYC-SFO for work, it’s still not nearly enough to earn “status” now that FF miles are so greatly devalued.

    When he travels with a colleague who does have status, the checked bag fee is waived. But when he flies alone, it’s an additional $50 on top of the $900+ fare paid.

    Sure, his company covers the checked bag fee, but still, it’s $50 on top of an already expensive fare paid since the last time I checked, $900 roundtrip NYC-SFO is still a pretty penny.

    And when we fly together, it’s out of our pockets for that $50 extra.

    Because, ‘ya know, it’s so easy to schlep a suitcase through security and around an airport when one is disabled…

    Then there’s this “densification” madness.

    Please, nobody expects lie flat seats on a discounted airfare. Or rather, most ordinary fliers don’t anyway …

    But once row pitch becomes less than 32”, that means we (or his company) MUST pay extra for E+ on Delta (or other airlines) since anything less introduces all sorts of problems for my partner, and those seated beside him who may need to climb over him to use the loo inflight since at least he’s guaranteed an aisle seat after arrangments are made with the airline in advance of his flights.

    And he’s not very tall, so if it’s bad for him, we can only imagine how much harder this sadistic “densification” is for those who are taller than his 5.5 or so feet.

    Then there’s the issue of outright neglect and abandonment that’s so commonplace, the shock now is when it does NOT happen.

    Case in point: our recent trip on Southwest where my partner, plus all of the other disabled passengers on our flight, were left to rot on the plane so long at BWI (at one of the furthest gates on the C concourse no less) that the entire plane was empty, and even ling thereafter, it was only after the Captain personally intervened to have the wheelchairs brought down the jetway, and then wheeled my partner off herself, before I took over the attendant’s duties and pushed his wheelchair from the far end of the C concourse over to the gates on the B concourse where our connecting flight departed from – hardly a short walk.

    Who knows how the other disabled passengers fares that night since even after the Captain intervened to get the wheelchairs brought down the jetway, there was still only ONE attendant available to assist the at least four disabled passengers aboard our flight that night.

    Long waits, or even outright abandonment, are hardly shocking to most disabled passengers, especially on the arrivals side of our flights.

    To be fair, on our last two United flights over the past six weeks, the disabled services on both ends of the trip have been very good.

    In fact, since the Dr. Dao dragging incident earlier this year, the overall experience at United in terms of disabled services has improved greatly, as we/my partner has experienced it.

    However, before the Dr. Dao dragging United’s treatment of its disabled passengers was exceptionally bad – even with its disability services department for a 15+ hours trip to/from Shanghai, China taken in March, 2016.

    But again, for the half dozen or so United trips taken since mid-April, we’ve found United to be much better than it was in recent years in terms of disabled services on the ground.

    Delta is also usually good – EXCEPT at Terminal 4 at JFK Airport, which is often exceptionally bad…at an airport where the RJ gates (aka the bus terminal) and many mainline gates are so far away it must be at least half a mile or more from the security check point.

    One trip was so bad, I had to call Delta’s disability services desk to intervene on his behalf and they had to hold his plane he was left to wait so long (despite arriving more than 2-hrs prior to scheduled departure time on an early Sunday morning flight to LAX)…

    …and just this past November, on a morning flight to SFO, I went with him (as I now do whenever my schedule permits) to JFK to personally escort him through the airport using a gate pass for a business trip he took.

    And this was hardly Delta at its best:

    A surly check in agent who lied when they told me I was not allowed to accaompany him to the gate, and once that matter was settled (I come prepared with the relevant sections of federal regulations specifically stating he’s entitled to have a non-traveling escort and request to speak with supervisors when this frequently told lie by many check-in agents is heard…) preceded an emerging epically long wait similar to the one noted above that required me to call Delta since I was NOT with him at JFK for the trip when that happened.

    This time things worked out for him…but only because I worked at JFK Airport for several years, and was familiar with the vendors, who does what there, and how things work, to make clear to the supervisor that any further delay probably would be a bad thing for him.

    So we were on our way PDQ after that discussion…complete with a “rock star” like escort and onto an awaiting golf cart once we cleared security.

    But it really shouldn’t have to take a “friendly reminder” (I took a very soft approach that day) by someone who can casually discuss their past work with so and so to get things rolling…

    And had I not been there that day, the way things were going, he’d probably still be waiting to be brought to his gate! Obviously, that’s exaggerating things, but certainly, had I not been there that morning, it’s a safe bet I would’ve received several texts about how long he was waiting, and how he was fearing his flight would leave without him like that other time, when it would’ve but for very aggressive intervention by Delta’s usually very good disability services “desk.”.

    I’ve also had to answer to close friend’s parents who were abandoned at Terminal 4 for a Delta flown KLM code share flight last year.

    Apart from feeling bad for having booked this flight and assuring her that her parents would be OK, the situation that finally went down was humiliating enough to leave her mother in tears.

    It shouldn’t have to be this way.

    Traveling is difficult and exhausting for most of us. For this disabled, it’s all of the hassles and inconveniences we all experience, except for disabled passengers, they’re also largely reliant on someone else to assist them for things the rest of us take for granted, like getting to gates that are at the far end of a concourse, connecting between different concourses or even different terminals, or even worse, a last minute gate change that requires rushing from one end of the terminal to the other.

    Nowadays, disabled passengers are finding themselves left to fend to themselves.

    And that’s just plain wrong. Anyone who says otherwise is a heartless ghoul.

  13. On the family, totally. A shame it happened, but cannot see any way it’s the airline’s fault. I am in my 70s and I hope to never see the day when someone will take my free will away from me if I chose to decline a service, as the lady apparently did.

  14. @Larry, yes, I sometimes travel with my partner…but he also travels for work even more than when travel together, and with and without me, often…NOT always…but often…we/he find ourselves completely abandoned on the arrivals side of the trip (US Airways especially, and then American which is on our “No Fly” list along with Allegiant, Frontier and Spirit), as happened just last month on Southwest for a connection at BWI, and that’s a problem.

    One should NOT have to wait until the Captain takes matters into their own hands to requisition wheelchairs after the entire plane is empty (and then even longer than that), and so long that the Captain pushes the wheelchairs up and out of the jetway into the terminal as she did for my partner that night.

    And as noted, who knows what happened to the other disabled passengers that night who were traveling alone?

    What would’ve happened if my partner was traveling alone that night?

    @Januce: I agree, one should NOT mistake an escalator for an elevator.

    And fortunately, my partner knows that wherever he is, if a problem arises, he can reach out to someone who can intervene on his behalf more efficiently than most other disabled passengers’ families can.

    My point, however, is this:

    None of us were there that night, and therefore, blindly taking only the airline’s or its third party vendor’s word for what happened that day and then blaming the victim or her family is unfair.

    We simply do NOT know exactly how things went down.

    Yes, it’s possible she refused assistance. And if so, then perhaps the process of discovery during litigation will bear this out as an established fact allowing for an outright dismissal of the suit.

    But if this FACT is in doubt, and if a jury, based on evidence and expert testimony finds that she was neglected and abandoned by the airline and its third party vendor, then regardless of whether she mistook the escalator for an elevator or not is irrelevant, and disabled passengers and their loved ones should want those responsible for the events that preceded her accident to be held accountable especially given the well publicized incidents of the various humiliations faced by disabled passengers on our nation’s airlines including one not too long ago where a disabled passenger was forced to crawl off a United flight in Hawaii (in the pre-Dr. Dao era) because neither any wheelchairs or an attendant was provided, which our personal, first-hand experience as two incidents on two of our country’s four largest OLIGOPOLIST airlines (Delta & Southwest) just last month makes clear, are anything but exceptional at all.

    Not surprisingly, in the EU, or in Tokyo, where my partner’s elderly parent was making an interline connection and the airport itself offers a free service after contacting them (which is incredible in terms of the respect and professionalism) and where the cultures and laws are different than ours, the treatment disabled passengers receive in these regions makes ours look practically barbaric.

    We speak from fairly extensive personal, first hand experience.

    And it’s only gotten worse as the airlines have become greedier and greedier and make clear just how much contempt they have for “HAVING” to offer a service to disabled passengers thst they can’t slap a $25-50 additional fee to provide.

    Make no mistake, when one is sitting in one of those disabled “pens”, or penalty boxes as I now call them, waiting endlessly for an attendant to become available, and then, of course, being forced to wait until the pilot and her crew is ready to turn off the lights for the plane itself, it’s hard to miss the “punishment” for having requested as service that the airline can’t charge a fee for.

    And like I said, although United has been bettee post Dr. Dao and deserves all due credit for that (in our experience anyway), the fact is, the treatment has gotten worse in recent years…

    …with those obnoxious waiting “pens” (or penalty boxes) now becoming more and more commonplace, which means apart from being singled out for everyone to see in an area of the terminal that requires first checking in and then going it alone (or with someone if a companion is with them) back to wherever the waiting area for disabled passengers just being the latest reminder of just how much most of our airlines resent that they can’t figure out an angle to charge an exorbitant ancillary fee for this “perk”…er necessary service.

  15. I didn’t watch the video as I don’t have the stomach to watch such things, but feel very sorry for the poor old lady.

    Having said that, these kinds of issues will multiple to potentially a breaking point for our society as the baby boomers age, particularly those with no savings or wealth to draw upon.

  16. Howard Miller
    Get a life!. Terrible incident.
    Victims fault. Period end b.s. of story.
    There just 12 words, rather than your epistle.

  17. My first thought upon reading the headline was “ Grandma got run over by a plane dear”.
    Agree this is on the family not the airline.

  18. Yeah, I usually am inclined to blame the big bad corporation. But after watching the video and the family interviewed, personal responsibility DOES play a role somewhere. So I agree with most folks here on the blog, no one is at fault. If anything, there might be some negligence on the family for letting her fly alone!

    @Howard…get a life

  19. As usual, there are fingers to point in several directions. There are many factors in play, but Alaska and other “deep pockets” will settle to avoid a jury trial and the possibility of punitive damages, assuming they don’t have a federal DOT preemption “get out of jail cheap” card that limits their liability. But even if state court tort actions are possible, compensatory damages for the death of a 75-year-old person in poor health would be immaterial for Alaska. The PR hit is the airline’s biggest concern.

  20. All airlines have an elevator for wheelchairs.. so why try to drive down stairs? Not the airlines fault. She shouldn’t have been there alone

  21. @HowardMiller

    The US can’t have nice things because people would abuse better services. Ever watch how many CLEARLY non-disabled people board first or use wheelchair services? I don’t see this in other countries. You hardly ever see a wheelchair in South America or Asia. The morbidly obese alone in the US would overwhelm better ground services. I agree it’s a shame but there are greater societal reasons for this besides airline greed.

  22. You must be referring to our Blessed Lady of the Jet Bridge! I have seen this miracle many a time.

  23. Shame on the family for trying to make a dollar out of not much sense!

    Horrible what Granny had gone through, but consider this:
    If whomever made the reservation, did not request an u nspexial assistance, then Granny was deemed competent enough to travel -virtually- “on her own”. So thenother remaining issue is: considering she is 75, mobility is presumably a challenge, BUT, the article offered that she was in her own “electric scooter” and therefore she did not need to be pushed around.

    The airline (and their contractor) has zero responsibility. It was her decision to scooter on her own, and while the consequences are horribly unfortunate, it was her decision that let to her demise. It was her own negligence (who would try and go down an escalator (or down stationary stairs for that matter) while riding a scooter?) that led to her demise!

    RIP Granny

  24. @Howard Miller I check the boxes you demand to have a say in this better than you do, and…no, it is really important that you (or your family/caregivers) check the boxes on the degree of care you get, because that is what tells the staff what is needed. It isn’t even victim blaming to say it is on the family if they didn’t do that–and you’re diminishing victim blaming on the whole because the victim is the grandmother and if the airline is telling the truth? Her family was neglectful and she died as a result of their neglect.

  25. I have a confession. When I see reader’s comments posted that are longer than the blog I just skip over them.

  26. Why didn’t they sue Portland or whoever owns the airport? I wonder if they also sued the doctor and the man who jumped over, leaving his luggage behind?

    This is why we have the pandemic. Too much blaming Trump or the government and not blaming our own bad behavior.

  27. I think I know Alaska Airlines’ weakness in the case. The passenger reserved wheelchair assistance (but did not check the box to indicate blind, deaf, or cognitive problems). The passenger probably refused help BUT the contractor for Alaska did not get a signed release, just a verbal. The procedure to shield the contractor or Alaska would have been to insist on escorting the passenger or have them sign a release stating that they do not want further assistance.

    Where’s my $1M? I was shocked by the video and deserve some money!

  28. @gart. I’m with you. Amazing how random bystanders just drop everything to help someone in need. Gives you hope. The guy deserves a medal.

  29. @ Howard Miller
    It’s people like you that allow this country to have such an absurd, responsibility-free litigation culture. She drove a wheelchair down a ****ing escalator.

    Ever considered retiring abroad?

  30. Of course the airline is responsible: she boarded and disembarked requiring a wheelchair, they knew she had a connecting flight and needed to transit through the airport ( and likely use an escalator in the process). I would have awarded 10 million….
    Her age is not germane ( including the ludicrous suggestion that 75 is elderly) but rather her health / mobility status

  31. I landed on an Alaska flight at PDX in January of 2020. The flight deplaned at some obscure area that required going up and down temporary scaffolding and a long walk outside just to get to the very farthest part of Terminal B then a 15 minute walk to baggage claim. Less than fit but non handicapped people were really struggling.
    Alaska’s operations at PDX can be torture and very user unfriendly.
    I say sue the bastards.

  32. Terrible headline, Alaska Airlines did not kill a granny. All Alaska did was fail to go above and beyond when the granny told them, no, she did not need assistance.

  33. I just love it, so many who are willing to blame the victim were not present in the courtroom when this case was heard.

  34. This is patently absurd. The family doesn’t care enough about this woman to protect her, but they’re right there with a lawsuit against a big corporation with deep pockets when she gets hurt. Absolutely disgusting. People with ANY kind of disability are certainly entitled to travel. And they should be furnished with the tools to do so, within reason. They need their own support system if they can’t tell an elevator from an escalator. How can anyone be so naive as to think an airline is going to “take care of” their special family member? They might, but what if they don’t? An airline is a corporation which cannot possibly guarantee the safety of someone who can’t take care of herself. If you care about your family member, be sure they can travel by themselves. If not, go with them for heaven’s sakes.

  35. Having worked in airline RES, looked at the company online booking engine or working with travel agents, the airlines are not clairvoyant. The person booking the ticket is responsible for informing the airline (through the above mentioned means) of special needs. When checking in for the flight, if the passenger uses kiosks and has carry on baggage, the airline can only ask if they need assistance. If checking baggage, the airline can only ask if assistance is needed. If the passenger refuses…the airline can’t be held responsible. Apparently Alaska did all the right things. Tragic as it is, had the lady accepted the airline’s help, things might have turned out differently. I hope the verdict is overturned on appeal. “Deep pockets”

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