Nov. 27, 2012 at 11:05 AM ET
An ailing, 425-pound woman who was turned away by three airlines as she tried to return to the U.S. from Europe has died overseas, prompting legal action from her family.
Vilma Soltesz and her husband traveled to Hungary in September to spend a month in their former homeland – a trek the Bronx residents made every year to visit family.
They flew from New York to Budapest on KLM without any problems, with Soltesz purchasing two seats for herself because of her size, said Holly Ostrov Ronai, the family’s attorney.
But when the couple tried to return to New York in October, the problems began.
“They were sent from airline to airline, they were sent driving around, they were just treated completely inhumanely,” Ronai told NBC News. “(The airlines) had a duty to get her home to her doctors.”
Soltesz, 56, and her husband came on board their scheduled KLM flight to New York on Oct. 15 with the help of a Skylift elevator, but the captain told them to disembark because of an issue with the seatback and because the airline didn’t have a seatbelt extender, Ronai said.
KLM countered that it was not physically possible for Soltesz to board the aircraft, despite every effort made by the airline.
“A seat or belt extender did not offer a solution either,” said KLM spokeswoman Ellen van Ginkel, in a statement to NBC News.
“Subsequently, KLM and its partners Delta and Air France did its utmost to find an alternative in the two days that followed. The passenger also took the initiative herself to approach her ticket agent to look for alternatives with other airlines.”
The couple spent five hours at the airport and then drove through the night to Prague, where they were told a bigger Delta Air Lines plane could take them home the next day. But that attempt was also unsuccessful because Delta only had a plastic wheelchair that was not able to hold Soltesz's weight, Ronai said.
Delta did not respond to a request for comment, but a spokesman for the airline told The New York Post that “despite a determined good-faith effort by Delta in Prague, we were also physically unable to board her on our aircraft.”
Finally, the couple tried to return to New York on a Lufthansa flight on Oct. 22. They boarded the plane, but the captain asked them to disembark because he thought Soltesz could not fasten herself in properly, Ronai said.
Lufthansa said the decision was unavoidable.
“Lufthansa, together with its local partners, fire brigade and technical experts at Budapest Airport tried its utmost to accommodate Mrs. Vilma Soltesz on board our flight from Budapest,” said spokeswoman Christina Semmel.
“After several, time consuming attempts it was decided that for the safety of this passenger and the over 140 fellow passengers, Lufthansa had to deny transportation of the passenger.”
Hungarian television footage of the couple after the incident showed Soltesz – an amputee who suffered from kidney disease and diabetes – with a severely distended belly. She died two days later.
Ronai, who plans to sue the three airlines involved for $6 million in federal court next week, said they violated the Air Carrier Access Act by not providing Soltesz with proper assistance or making the proper accommodations for her to be able to fly home and seek medical care from her doctors. This ultimately caused her death, Ronai said.
Under the Air Carrier Access Act, airlines may not refuse to fly people because of their disability, but they may exclude anyone from a flight “if carrying the person would be inimical to the safety of the flight.”
“Airlines are responsible for determining whether or not they can carry passengers safely, and that includes those with disabilities. They may decline boarding if they believe they’re not able to do so,” said DOT spokesman Bill Mosley.
A carrier that excludes a person with a disability on safety grounds must provide a written explanation, but the Soltesz family never received any such document, Ronai said.
Meanwhile, the European Union, which includes Hungary, mandates that air travelers with “reduced mobility” can't be denied boarding, unless the aircraft is physically too small or there are security concerns.
Obesity in itself is not considered a disability and it’s up to each airline to decide how to deal with large passengers, Mosley said.
There is also no specific rule that requires airlines to carry seatbelt extenders, said Les Dorr, an FAA spokesman. Planes must be equipped with an approved safety belt for each passenger, but the only way to meet the "approved" requirement for large fliers is for the airline to furnish the extenders, Dorr said.
With more than one-third of U.S. adults now obese, airlines continue to grapple with how to accommodate those fliers. Most now have policies addressing “customers of size” – usually asking them to buy two seats if they can’t lower their armrests or overflow into a neighbor’s seat.
Airfarewatchdog.com recently put together a guide listing each carrier’s approach and was surprised by the lack of uniformity.
Meanwhile, Soltesz’s family is grieving their loss.
“This should not have happened at all and it should never happen to anyone else, ever,” Ronai said.