“Woman dies after being thrown from wheelchair on Southwest Airlines walkway”

Reading this headline I had visions of Southwest Airlines gate agents tossing the woman out of her wheelchair. But that’s not what happened at all.

Indeed, after Southwest’s winter meltdown you can almost imagine current CEO Bob Jordan and former CEO Gary Kelly showing up at the airport, grabbing wheelchair-bound passengers at random, and simply tossing them aside.

In fact what’s getting broad media attention is a tragedy, and a lawsuit for failure to warn.

Nearly a year ago a 25 year old woman was boarding a Southwest Airlines flight in Fort Lauderdale, heading for Denver, when “her electric wheelchair hit a junction that caused her to be thrown from her chair.” It’s that fall, they say, that left her “paralysed and in need of the ventilator.” She passed away in late January.

Her family’s lawsuit says that the airline should have provided wheelchair assistance instead of her heading down the jet bridge on her own, and should have warned that the jet bridge would be dangerous.

According to Southwest Airlines,

Southwest offers its sincere condolences to Ms. Assouline’s family, friends and all whose lives she touched. ..We have a more than 51-year commitment to caring for our People and Customers and remain engaged with the parties involved.

The loss of life is a tragedy, and it’s not obvious what would have prevented it. That’s what trials are for, if this case gets that far, though it seems like it may settle before reaching that stage.

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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. God I hate ambulance chasers. The US legal system has gone crazy. Need to reform it and eliminate lawsuits. Just a cash grab for survivors which is so pathetic

  2. 25…Way too young. Wonder why she needed the wheelchair to begin with. Whatever the case, condolences to her family.

  3. presumably the woman chose to drive her own electric wheelchair down the jetway (walkway) and pitched forward as she moved from one section to another. If so,
    1. was she ever properly taught how to use a wheelchair on a non-smooth surface? it is fairly well accepted that it is best to “back down” a ramp. it not, then the liability might well be the wheelchair manufacturer’s or whoever sold/leased it to her
    2. the “walkways” in airports are maintained by the airport. The liability could be theirs.
    3. it would be pretty tough to prove that Southwest didn’t offer to assist her since I’m sure any conversation was not recorded.
    This was a tragedy and many airlines do provide assistance during pre-boarding but, if someone chooses to use their own equipment and navigate infrastructure on their own, they waive their own liability. If the woman ‘s family had any reason to believe she couldn’t exercise good judgment in the use of her wheelchair, they bear liability.

    These are the kinds of things where companies can and should say the right things in public and then rip the argument to shreds in the courtroom

    In other news, since this site loves to use the term “meltdown” Southwest and, even more so American, are in meltdown mode due to the ice storm that is stuck over N. Texas, Arkansas and western TN. (actually they wish things would melt). Both have cancelled over 10% of their flights today, did the same yesterday – and AA is now cancelling 1/4 of its entire network today – which sounds like a meltdown if there ever was one.
    Of course it’s weather related – but the people that throw that term around act as if other airlines cancel massive number flights when no weather is involved.
    AA has now cancelled more flights just today (new month) or Monday and Tuesday (the month of January) than many comparably sized airlines cancelled for an entire month in the past year

  4. @Tim Dunn – yes, enjoy schadenfreude over current Texas weather, I’ve been losing power on and off throughout the morning and my main internet is out as well.

  5. there is no schadenfreude.
    It is simply the reality that weather happens, it was the reason behind the cancellations at other airlines in December, you bragged that AA’s better on-time performance was due to luck, Texas gets ice storms just about every year and this storm will screw up 3+ days of airline operations in Texas, and this storm which straddles two months have a far bigger impact on airline cancellation ratios than anything in months except for WN’s genuine operational meltdown.

    and maybe this is a little object lesson about using the word “meltdown” a little more sparingly.

    Hope you and the rest of Texas warms up and gets moving again soon.

    ps. how are the wind turbines doing this year?

  6. I am saying that Southwest’s was the ONLY operational meltdown of the past six months. They and they alone had a level of cancellations far above what other carriers experienced in the same weather environment and took much longer to recover.
    Other airlines previously including Spirit last summer and Southwest in the fall and before had operational meltdowns by that standard and their DOT cancellation rates show it.
    American did have massive cancellations in the summer of 2020 by that same standard but is doing a pretty good job operationally.
    Major storm systems that cripple air traffic are normal across the country. They do not form the basis of a “meltdown” unless an airline cancels or delays a disproportionately larger percentage of flights or takes longer to recover than other carriers. Cherry picking a couple of good weather days for one airline and then bragging about operational performance (including as was done by an AA exec on their earnings call) always comes back to bite one on the backside.

    And, to the subject of this article, there is no risk of people being thrown from wheelchairs when descending the jetway when the flight is cancelled – so Southwest (and American) are being proactive in protecting passengers right now.

  7. Gary,
    how are the windmills in Texas doing? those Europeans that settled the hill country had no idea what they started….

  8. Leave it to Tim Dunn to turn an article about a wheelchair accident on Southwest to Delta’s operation two months earlier.

  9. This story reminds me of the $3.2 million verdict against Alaska Airlines in a wrongful death lawsuit when a passenger in a wheelchair tumbled down an escalator at the Portland airport in 2017, resulting in injuries that led to her death.

    According to KGW8 news, “Kekona’s family said that they had requested gate-to-gate service for their mother, who needed wheelchair assistance. According to the complaint, gate agents met Kekona as she deplaned in Portland and provided her a wheelchair ride to the top of the skybridge. She was then left alone and became confused, leading her to tumble in her wheelchair down an escalator. The incident was captured on surveillance video.”


  10. @Mark
    (Grabbing my popcorn…)

    Apparently Tim has a thing against wind power now… mentioned it twice now hoping for a rise out of Gary (who knows why…)

  11. not once in my replies to this article did I mention any other airlines besides AA and WN.
    Some people are so convinced of the narrative which they themselves have created in their own minds that they see demons behind every doorknob.

    As for wind turbines, Gary’s first reply was about losing electricity. Those that paid attention a year ago remember that the failure of the wind turbines during icing weather was reportedly one of the primary reasons for the failure of the Texas power grid. My question is very much in the context of Gary’s reply.
    I am not opposed to new or green technology but you might look out the window of a plane approaching DEN from the east to see wind turbines for miles and miles as well as ask the whales that are beaching in the NE and the cities that have to haul away the carcasses if wind energy is really an environmental improvement and is everything that it is cracked up to be.

    my comments were and still are about the flippant use of the word “meltdown” aside from the fairly logical replies in line with the very few besides me that have addressed the lady and her wheelchair.

  12. According to other news services, the woman suffered from a genetic muscle disease which limited her walking distances. In the “he said – she said” which the courts will decide are that according to Southwest, she refused assistance getting off the plane, but the parents are denying that. Since the young woman was travelling alone, I’m not sure how the parents know.


  13. Another great click-bait headline. I did not know that power chairs were allowed on the jetway. The athletes that I travelled with usually used manual chairs if they needed them. Of course the family has filed a lawsuit. This is America, isn’t it?

  14. Well, at least there are two people who would never sue an airline over possible negligence. Yeah, right.

  15. Had the lady never flown before? If she had, she knew how the ramp was and taken her self on plane before. Then I dont understand why her parents think they deserve money. If it was her 1st time ,then yes ,they should sue.

  16. This is nothing more than the parents, and their attorney, looking for a payday. This abuse of the judicial system should result in fines for the parents and their lawyer.

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