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On Saturday my family flew back from Paris to Minneapolis. From Minneapolis we were scheduled to connect to our flight to Nashville and arrive home on Saturday afternoon. Except Delta Airlines refused to allow my family to board the connecting flight in Minneapolis and insisted we leave the airport immediately after we exited customs.
Because my six year old son found out he had lice halfway over the Atlantic Ocean.
Let me explain how all this happened.
I have a wife and three boys, ages 9, 6, and 2 and on June 30th we all flew to London. On July 10th we all took the Chunnel to Paris and spent an additional five days there. During these two weeks in London and Paris our kids took regular baths and we combed their hair after each bath. At no point did either of us see any signs of lice.
Until, that is, halfway over the Atlantic Ocean when my six year old son needed to go the bathroom.
While he was standing in line for the bathroom, my six year old started to scratch his head. My wife checked to see why he was scratching his head and saw then that he had lice. Several flight attendants rushed over too and peered down at my son’s head. “Oh, my God, he has lice,” they said.
(All of you are now scratching your heads, I bet. I’m sorry. Unless you are Alabama football fans you probably don’t have lice.).
My wife came back to the seat and tapped me on the shoulder.
I nearly jumped out of my seat because I was watching “The Conjuring,” on the plane. (I had no idea this horror movie existed. This is what happens when you have kids. I used to see just about every movie. Now the only movies I’ve seen this summer are Cars 3 and Despicable Me 3. True story, I told my boys in London they could pick whatever they wanted to do one day. They picked go to Despicable Me 3 and eat at McDonald’s. I’ve never been prouder.) So my wife tells me that the flight attendants have instructed us that when we land in Minneapolis we aren’t allowed to leave the plane because my six year old has lice.
“We aren’t allowed to leave the plane?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said.
That seemed strange to me so I got out my laptop and tried to find any policies governing passengers traveling with lice. There were none that I could find. But I did find lots of health information about lice in kids.
Including the fact that the CDC recommends that kids no longer be sent home from school if they have lice.
Here I’m quoting from the CDC website:
“Students diagnosed with live head lice do not need to be sent home early from school; they can go home at the end of the day, be treated, and return to class after appropriate treatment has begun. Nits may persist after treatment, but successful treatment should kill crawling lice.
Head lice can be a nuisance but they have not been shown to spread disease. Personal hygiene or cleanliness in the home or school has nothing to do with getting head lice.
Both the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the National Association of School Nurses (NASN) advocate that “no-nit” policies should be discontinued. “No-nit” policies that require a child to be free of nits before they can return to schools should be discontinued for the following reasons:
Many nits are more than ¼ inch from the scalp. Such nits are usually not viable and very unlikely to hatch to become crawling lice, or may in fact be empty shells, also known as ‘casings’.
Nits are cemented to hair shafts and are very unlikely to be transferred successfully to other people.
The burden of unnecessary absenteeism to the students, families and communities far outweighs the risks associated with head lice.
Misdiagnosis of nits is very common during nit checks conducted by nonmedical personnel.”
And many schools, including many of the top school districts in the country, now have a specific policy in place that students with lice shouldn’t miss any school at all.
“The schools here in Arlington, Va., have adopted what you might call a live-and-let-lice policy. No child will be sent home for lice or for nits. If a child has lice in her hair, the nurse will contact parents but send the child back to the classroom for the rest of the day. Parents are expected to treat the lice, but no one is checking in to enforce this expectation. No classes or groups will be screened for bugs. “No healthy child,” the policy reads, “should be excluded from or miss school because of head lice.”
This seems to be the common perception when it comes to lice, that it isn’t that big of a deal. I, of course, like most of you, didn’t know any of this, because I wasn’t expecting to find out my six year old had lice halfway over the Atlantic Ocean.
But we did know how my six year old had gotten lice. He got the lice from his cousins, who had lice three weeks ago. (It takes several weeks for lice to manifest itself.) When my sister told me about her kids having lice, my wife bought all the over the counter lice treatments and doused our kids with it. Then she kept an eye on both boys over the next several weeks. Again, until that exact moment on the airplane we had zero idea he had lice at all. And we had been looking for it.
I asked my six year old why he hadn’t told us about his head itching before that moment and he said because it never had itched.
When we landed in Minneapolis, the entire plane emptied and a flight attendant who looked a bit like Nurse Ratched from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” approached us and said that we would not be allowed to take our connecting flight and would have to leave the airport in Minneapolis.
This, as you can well imagine, did not please me.
“We are not staying in Minneapolis,” I said. (At this point I also started thinking, I don’t want to turn into that Asian doctor and get dragged off an airplane by security. Especially since I defended the airline in that case with this article. I get that airline personnel have difficult jobs. But I did tell Nurse Ratched that I was a lawyer and hadn’t been able to find any policy about lice online, that we were traveling back from Europe and just wanted to get home and only had a short flight.) She was not helpful.
In fact, we remained quarantined on the plane and the airline brought two medical people onto the plane too. I don’t know who these people were or who employed them, but they said, “We need to examine your children.” This seemed strange to me — is it really airline policy now to conduct physical examinations of six year olds? — but all they wanted to do was take my kids temperatures. My kids were both healthy so I said fine and they took the temperatures and neither of the older boys had a fever. (Good luck getting my two year old to submit to a temperature check, by the way.)
So they allowed us to exit the plane and we then spent the next hour and a half standing in line for customs because the early entry machines broke. While we were standing in line Nurse Ratched returned with a different medical person, asked us to leave the customs line, and insisted that my six year old submit to a medical exam there in the customs area. I said that I didn’t want to submit my six year old to a medical exam and she said if I refused then we were not allowed to get on our next Delta flight. At that point what options did I have? So someone in gloves starts combing through my six year old’s hair in the middle of the customs area.
That gloved person says my son has lice and Nurse Ratched gives a contented nod.
We return to wait in line, eventually make it through customs — we did not have to declare the lice — and as soon as we enter the airport Nurse Ratched is standing there with another Delta employee. This man tells us that we will not be allowed to take our connecting flight home, that we must leave the airport immediately, find somewhere in the city to be treated for lice, obtain a clearance form that proves we had all been treated, and until we do that we will not be allowed to fly home on Delta.
When my wife asks where he suggests we go, he says the emergency room.
This does not please my wife. “THE EMERGENCY ROOM?!” she says.
When I point out that only one of my sons has lice — according to the Delta examination — and that shouldn’t the rest of us — minus a parent who would be allowed to stay behind with him — at the very least be allowed to continue on our flight so that we can get our two year old and nine year old home? The Delta employee says that’s impossible because the entire family unit is banned from travel on his airline.
He actually said, “His airline,” like he owned Delta personally.
I ask to speak to his boss and he says that’s impossible. I ask him whether anyone has ever been kicked off the plane for lice before and he says not that he knows of. He also says that our entire family now had to be treated for lice before we were allowed to travel on their planes. That’s despite the fact that no one else presently has lice. And did I mention that his suggestion is that we all go to the emergency room to obtain this treatment? At this point, I will confess, I was not happy.
Based on my legal research I was told that pilots have final authority over who flies on their planes. So I told him that we were going to go into the airport, head to our gate, and I’d let the pilot decide whether we were allowed to fly. He told me this was impossible and that he didn’t want to have to call security on me. At this point, I had a decision to make. How far did I want to take this? Did I want to get removed by security like the Asian doctor? Get dragged out of the airport in front of my kids because my six year old had lice? So we left. But not before I said, “Just so you know, I’ll be writing all about this on the Internet.”
Which is probably the lamest line I have ever uttered in my life.
Now to Delta’s very limited credit they did give us a hotel voucher, but I didn’t want my family to be forced to stay in Minneapolis so I immediately tried to get us booked on a Southwest flight. My reasoning on this was simple, everyone on Southwest flights already has lice anyway. (I’m kidding, kidding. Just the C boarding group.) So I tried to buy five tickets on a Southwest flight to Nashville. There were only two tickets available though — at $321 each one way through Chicago first — so I took my two year old and my wife did research on where to find lice treatment in Minneapolis. Eventually she found a location and took a thirty minute cab ride to the location, where the treatment was performed on my wife and our nine and six year olds. Otherwise they wouldn’t have been allowed to fly home.
The next day my two year old and I were checked for lice. Neither of us had it.
Before my two year old and I left Minneapolis on our Southwest flight, my six year old pulled me aside and said, “It’s all my fault that we can’t go home, daddy. I’m sorry that I have lice.”
And he was nearly crying when he said it.
Which, if you’re a parent, just breaks your heart.
Now I’m not going to lie, I never in my wildest imagination thought my family would get pulled off an airline flight for anything, much less my six year old having lice. But given the fact that I couldn’t find anything about this issue, I think our situation raises several questions.
First, the airline has no lice policy. If the CDC recommends schools not send home kids for lice — and the present policy is moving towards never sending kids home at all — shouldn’t an airline let a kid complete his travel home with his family? After all, isn’t his lice as much of an issue in all public venues like subways, hotels, and taxis? Furthermore, what would an airline do if they discovered a kid traveling alone had lice? Are they really going to refuse to allow a ten or 12 year old to complete his connecting flight? Are they going to put him in a hotel by himself? What if a child was part of a school group? Does the entire school group get held behind? Are you going to insist a teacher keep a minor child in a hotel room over night? It’s just an absurd policy to apply this way. Delta completely bungled this situation.
Second, and this is important to me, airlines shouldn’t be in the business of insisting on public medical exams for flying passengers, particularly if they are minor children with insignificant health issues. Is it really Delta Airlines policy that if your kid doesn’t submit to a medical examination in a public area that he or she’s not allowed to travel? Do you know how upsetting and humiliating it can be to many kids to be publicly examined like this? Is that really the business the airline wants to be in? Shouldn’t they allow parents to make decisions like these?
Third, as I pointed out, THE REST OF THE FAMILY WAS FINE. If you are insisting that one person has an issue, should the entire family not be allowed to travel too? If one family member broke his or her leg in the airport and wasn’t healthy enough to travel would Delta truly insist that all family members had to stay behind with them? Of course not. There’s no way my entire family should have been banned from travel and kicked out of the airport.
Fourth, should it really be company policy to force a mother or father or grandparent or guardian traveling with a minor child to obtain medical treatment in a strange city before being allowed to fly on your planes again? Just think about the potential problems here. What if my wife’s taxi driver had crashed on the way to the lice treatment? What if the passengers became victims of a crime in a strange city? What if, God forbid, a guardian who would have never been allowed to spend the night with a kid otherwise commits sexual assault on that kid in a hotel room that night? Does Delta Airlines, or any airline for that matter, really want responsibility for this?
Fifth, my family incurred over a thousand dollars in additional travel costs because of Delta’s decision. Fortunately, we can afford that cost, but many travelers can’t. What if future flights are all booked? How long could a passenger be stranded in a strange city before making it home?
Look, I’m sympathetic to the fact that airlines and their employees have tough jobs. And I understand the desire to protect passengers, but virtually every large plane in America today has a passenger with lice. It’s just that common. And every plane flight certainly has at least one person with a communicable disease of one sort or another. But I can’t help but think Delta totally mishandled this situation and needs to reconsider their policies. The reason I’m writing this story is so someone at Delta corporate — and other airlines — will read this and ask themselves the questions I just asked above. I don’t want anybody else’s kid to be forced to submit to a medical examination in a public area and then be brought to tears over the fact that he has lice.
And hopefully this situation can be handled much better in the future.
In the meantime, I hope you guys aren’t scratching your heads too furiously now. And, as always, thanks for reading Outkick.