Joe Myxter, msnbc.com
By Travel editor
msnbc.com
updated 5/11/2011 12:15:11 PM ET 2011-05-11T16:15:11

Korean Air is defending its decision to deny a seat to a woman with stage 4 breast cancer, saying it was concerned about Crystal Kim’s health for the long flight. Consumer advocate Kate Hanni, however, called it “a callous disregard for this woman’s right to travel.”

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Kim and her daughter, Mimi, were not allowed to board a Korean Air flight at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport over the weekend despite having medical clearance to fly.

Hanni, the founder of FlyersRights.com, said Korean Air’s decision is absurd. “This woman should be allowed immediate carriage, as she has all of the documentation normally required to prove she is of sound enough health to make the trip,” she said.

Story: Cancer patient denied seat on flight

“We sincerely regret that we could not accommodate them on that flight,” Penny Pfaelzer, a spokesperson for the airline, told msnbc.com.

While Kim arrived at the airport with notes from her doctor, the airline ultimately makes the decision whether a passenger is healthy enough to fly. “Korean Air has an in-house medical team comprised of licensed medical doctors and who make the final decision on who can and cannot board our flights,” Pfaelzer said.

Korean Air follows guidelines set by the International Air Transport Association. “We require medical clearances when we have received information that a passenger might require medical attention and/or special equipment to maintain their health during the flight or might have their medical condition aggravated during or because of the flight,” Pfaelzer said.

A Seattle-to-Seoul flight takes about 11 1/2 hours, according to a search on Korean Air's website.

Many airlines use a call-in service that allows concerned airline staffers or flight crews to speak to medical professionals when passengers identify themselves as not feeling well or show signs of illness and discomfort.

More than 60 airlines around the world use MedLink, a service provided by MedAire. “An airline employee trained to listen to cues can call the MedLink service and speak with a nurse trained to triage over the phone,” said Jill Drake of MedAire. The nurses “ask questions to passengers, airline workers or airport employees to provide third-party medical opinion,” she said.

MedAire handles more than 50 MedLink calls each day.

Kim has requested a refund from Korean Air. "We are expediting this refund and it will be processed tomorrow," Pfaelzer said.

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