A woman with Tourette syndrome is barred from boarding planes at Hamilton airport despite warning ground crew about her condition.
Destiny Te Whiu tries to catch a plane to Wellington on March 12, hoping to return home for his birthday the next day.
The 22-year-old man, who was only diagnosed with Tourette last year, warned Air New Zealand staff that he had the condition and was told there would be no problems. However, the captain stopped him from boarding the plane after hearing one of his tics.
This is the first time he has tried to board a plane since his diagnosis. Apart from that, Te Whiu also had a fear of heights, which always made flying a tense situation for him.
She’s been nervous ever since she arrived at the airport, worried that her stress is worsening her symptoms and tics getting her into trouble.
“I was very afraid of heights which could be the reason why I was stressed, plus I haven’t been flying in a while.
“It was very stressful,” he said.
Because different stressful situations trigger different tic attacks, the young woman doesn’t know what symptoms she will experience at the airport.
As much as he tried to stay calm, to fend off the tic attacks, he started to become increasingly anxious – and then the poor tic appeared.
“I started hearing myself say I had a gun and I thought ‘oh no, this is not good’ and thought I should tell the crew – it’s my first time so I don’t know and I’m alone.”
He warns ground crews when dropping his bags at check-in, because tic attacks are unpredictable and, he added, he knows his tattoos can make him look even more threatening to some.
“They were like ‘okay cool’. I told them there is one thing I have said since I arrived at the airport and that is ‘I have a gun’, which I don’t have,” he said.
He said the crew alerted the captain and, moments later, he heard his name being called, just before he saw his bag being taken out again.
“A woman came five minutes later and sat next to me and apologized and said I couldn’t get on the plane, the captain didn’t let me get on because of my tics. I was crying,” she said.
“I just want to go home and see my family – it’s been a month and it’s my birthday the next day.
“Two hours later after the crying session, the woman asked if I wanted snacks and water. I had some. Then she explained that I would be given a hotel for the night, with free dinner, and they got me a driver to and from the hotel. “
Te Whiu was booked for a flight to Wellington the following morning.
“I was very worried. I couldn’t sleep the night before, which is obviously very bad for the tics. Luckily, I got on the plane and just fell asleep,” he said.
‘I won’t want this to anyone’
Tourette’s syndrome is a nervous system disorder that involves repetitive movements or unwanted sounds, known as tics.
“I was born like everyone else,” he said, explaining how he developed the syndrome as a result of stress.
Te Whiu is now learning to treat the condition, after initial shock diagnosis.
“It’s not something I would expect of anyone,” he said.
“When I was diagnosed, I had a really hard time,” he recalls, adding that he would be shut up indoors, away from the world.
“I cried continuously every time I tried to hang out with other people, even paying for gas was difficult. It was really hard for a month, then I got used to it and accepted it.
“I have doctor appointments constantly and I try to set it up and see where I am with it all the time,” he added.
He said no day was the same, as his symptoms varied depending on the level of stress he was under.
These days, Te Whiu is open about Tourette so that her tics don’t surprise the people she interacts with.
He said there is a community of Tourette sufferers in New Zealand, which he hopes Air New Zealand will listen to, to make sure this never happens again.
“I want to sit with people who are capable of making a difference so that we in the Tourette community can really speak up,” said Te Whiu.
He continues to be in close contact with Jade O’Connell, which last October stopped from boarding an Air New Zealand flight from Dunedin to Wellington, To attend Camp Twitch, a camp for those with Tourette’s syndrome.
Te Whiu said he hoped he, O’Connell and fellow sufferer Leighton Clarke, who all used social media to spread awareness about the condition, could sit down with Air New Zealand staff about the issue.
Air New Zealand apologizes for ‘misunderstanding’
Air New Zealand has since apologized to Te Whiu and admitted he should have been allowed to board the plane on March 12.
“While customers owning Tourette are not required to seek medical clearance before flying regretfully, misunderstanding of the procedure between staff members resulted in the decision being made not to allow these customers to board their aircraft as their verbal tic could potentially cause security issues, Chief Operational Integrity and Safety. Air New Zealand Captain David Morgan told the Herald.
“Medical clearance is only required if the customer is physically unable to complete the flight safely and requires permission from our in-flight medical team.”
Morgan said Te Whiu’s experience was “inconsistent” with airline policy and “not high standards of care / management. [Air New Zealand] likes to show customers “.
“The situation has highlighted areas that we can improve on. We have investigated our processes and made sure all relevant business areas are in line with the correct policies and procedures to prevent similar situations from occurring again, particularly with tourists with Tourette or accidental verbal harassment.
“We have reached out to customers to apologize for this experience and have been seeking feedback on how Air New Zealand can better support the Tourette community,” added Morgan.