Robbie and Sarah Kitchen expected their family summer holiday to Florida to be a dream trip after Covid and a health scare.
The family of five from Dundonald in Northern Ireland had originally planned to visit the Sunshine State in 2020, but Covid put paid to the plan. Then Robbie was diagnosed with prostate cancer and spent months undergoing treatment before being given the all clear.
Finally, by June 2022 they were packed and ready to fly from their local airport, Belfast City. They had a confirmed booking on Aer Lingus to London Heathrow, with a transfer to Virgin Atlantic for the flight to Orlando.
But the Irish airline oversold the first leg – and, despite protests from the parents, insisted that two of the children should be driven over the Irish border and flown 4,000 miles on their own.
The first the family knew of any problem was at check-in at the Northern Ireland airport.
The ground staff separated their daughter Molly (16) and elder son Zack (18) and asked them to wait at a separate desk.
The parents and their youngest child, three-year-old Charlie, were given their boarding passes. But as Sarah Kitchen told the BBC Ulster programme On Your Behalf, ground staff said there was no room for the older children.
“They said, ‘I’m sorry, the flight is overbooked and there is no room for your other two children. We’ll just put them on the next flight.”
Ms Kitchen explained that the next flight would arrive after the onward connection to Florida had left.
“They said, ‘That’s just how it is. There’s nothing we can do.”
Under European air passengers’ rights rules, airlines are legally obliged to ask for volunteers to travel on a later flight before they deny boarding to passengers who need to fly as booked. Aer Lingus did not do this.
“I was in shock and I was trying to process what we could do,” Ms Kitchen said. “The children were distressed and they just couldn’t believe what was happening. So I said can we at least swap and leave one adult with one child and then one of us go with two children?
“They said, ‘No, if you do that, you’re voluntarily giving up a seat and that also invalidates your seat onward to America’.
“I tried to argue our point and the people behind in the queue could see how distressed we were, and they started arguing on our behalf and saying, ‘Have you asked, maybe somebody would offer to give up their seat and swap – they could take the later flight?’.
But, she says, the ground staff said: “No, the plane’s boarded. We can’t do that and you need to come on now, we need to get you on this plane, or else you are giving up your seats.”
Ms Kitchen then decided to fully explain the circumstances.
“I went over and had a quiet word with the staff and explained about my husband’s situation and about how this was a holiday of a lifetime, and we just didn’t want to be separated as a family – was there nothing that could be done just to keep us all together?
“There was no sympathy.
“The youngest was so upset and cried for most of the flight. I was shaking – I didn’t know what was going to happen with the other two and I was just so nervous on their behalf.
“When we landed and were able to turn the phones on, my son had sent a message to say they had been put in a taxi from Belfast City airport down to Dublin airport, where they were going to get on a plane that would take them to Orlando.
“It was going to be a flight on their own to America. We had no say in this decision and that upset me.
“They were just expected to reach the airport and work out where to go next. They weren’t given any flight details – they were just told to go to an Aer Lingus desk. My son at that stage was very upset.”
At Heathrow, the parents spent their time on the phone trying to speak to someone at Aer Lingus.
“We were on the phone, put on hold, couldn’t get to speak to an actual person to find out what was happening.”
Just before the parents and youngest child had to board the Virgin Atlantic flight at Heathrow, they heard from their elder son.
“The last update we had from him was, ‘We are still in the queue at the Aer Lingus desk. We have no tickets. We’ve been told our flight is taking off in about an hour’.”
Others in the queue at Dublin airport urged the youngsters to go to the front – but when they did so, ground staff told them to go back and wait with their family.
Ms Kitchen says her exasperated son Zack told Aer Lingus staff: “That’s the point, I don’t have my family with me, we’ve been sent here to try and get us on a plane.”
Back at Heathrow, she says, Virgin Atlantic crew on the flight preparing to leave for Orlando were more sympathetic.
“As soon as we got on they could tell there was something wrong, and they sent down a service manager who took all of the details. She went away to try and start phoning Aer Lingus.
“I was just so upset at this point. I was just heartbroken that our family trip was being ruined like this, and more just nervous – I did not know if they were even going to get on the plane and make it to Orlando. The girl actually gave me a big hug.”
One of the Virgin Atlantic pilots then came to speak to the parents. She told them: “I have just spoken with the pilot of the Aer Lingus flight from Dublin to Orlando and your children are sitting in their seats.”
Ms Kitchen says: “At that point, I could breathe again. I could relax; I knew at least they were safe. I knew that they were on their way and we would see them soon.”
The family met up at Orlando airport but say the first few days of their holiday were spoilt because of the stressful start. “It took us a few days to even get into holiday mode because everyone was so upset,” Sarah Kitchen says.
When she complained to Aer Lingus about her treatment, she was told by a customer relations executive: “I am so sorry to hear of your disappointing experience when you and your family recently flew with us.
“I can certainly understand your disappointment with several aspects of our service which you described.”
Aer Lingus offered a flight voucher to the value of €50 (£43) per person. Under European air passengers’ rights rules, the two children were due £520 each in cash compensation for being denied boarding.
Besides the cash compensation, Ms Kitchen says: “I would like them to acknowledge at least the trauma that we went through and accept that it is unacceptable to separate a family with no consent, with no clear, detailed plan of how we would be reunited again. They made that choice.”
In a statement, Aer Lingus said: “We sincerely apologise to Sarah and her family for their experience – this is not the level of service we seek to provide at Aer Lingus.
“Our Ground Operations in Belfast City Airport are handled by a third party supplier – we will conduct a thorough investigation into the circumstances of this incident.
“Our Customer Care team have been in direct contact with Sarah to arrange compensation.”