Meet Elly Kulesza, Terror Toddler.
In her finer moments-mainly when she's on land - 3-year-old Elly is an adorable and sweet-mannered child, a blue-eyed charmer who likes to dance and harbors a particular fondness for Thomas the Tank Engine.
"She's a typical 3-year-old," said her mother, Julie Kulesza of 7 Primrose St. in Worcester. "She has her moments like all 3-year-olds, but she's not like one of those `Nanny 911' children you see on TV."
Elly's dad, Gerald Kulesza, is a full-time EMT in Boston who also attends nursing school full time, and he did so well last semester that Elly's mom surprised her husband with a trip to Florida to visit his parents, who live in Bonita Springs. So on Jan. 11, the family flew from Logan Airport to Fort Meyers on AirTran Airways, and even though it was Elly's first plane trip she behaved like a dream and spent most of the flight coloring in her coloring book and watching movies on a portable DVD player.
"She was great," her mom remembered. "When we made our descent into Florida we could see the water and she shouted, `Look, mommy, there's the beach where we go swimming,' and everyone laughed."
Yes, it was a heartwarming moment for all concerned, and the trip was great, too. The family swam and went sightseeing, and on Jan 14 they drove back to the airport for the return trip home. They checked their luggage - a suitcase and a car seat. As they waited for their flight to be called, Elly contentedly munched on a bag of Cheetos and watched out the window as the planes took off and landed.
Then came ... The Boarding. Suddenly and without warning, angelic little Elly morphed into every parents' nightmare.
Her mom thinks it may have been because of the ear surgery Elly underwent earlier this month, and perhaps her memory of the discomfort and ear pressure she endured during the plane's descent into Florida. For whatever reason, when they got on the plane, Elly started to cry and wouldn't stop. Nor would she sit down - she plopped herself down on the floor in front of her seat and proceeded to throw a temper tantrum.
"I was trying to console her and the stewardess came over and said, `Did you buy that seat for her?' remembers Ms. Kulesza, 31, who is four months pregnant. "I said yes, and she told me my daughter needs to sit in it. I told her I was trying."
Moments later, an AirTran Airways employee armed with a walkie-talkie addressed Mr. Kulesza.
"Sir, you need to get her under control," she said.
"We're trying," Mr. Kulesza noted.
The passengers, meanwhile, were quite understanding and one of them offered the toddler a lollipop, which she rejected. Then the walkie-talkie woman returned to the Kuleszas' aisle and displayed the raw tact and diplomacy of Donald Trump.
"Sir, you need to get off the plane," she announced.
"What?" a stunned Mr. Kulesza asked. "Are you serious?"
"Sir, you need to get off the plane now."
They got off the plane, while their luggage and car seat flew on to Boston. In the terminal they were directed to an AirTran supervisor, who told the couple that the stewardess was uncomfortable "because you have an unruly child who struck a woman on board."
Mr. Kulesza was incredulous. "That was her mother," he explained. "She hit her on the arm. Lady, this is a 3-year-old child we're talking about."
"Sir, we don't differentiate between 3 and 33," the AirTran supervisor replied. Mr. Kulesza said the woman proceeded to lecture him about child discipline, and how she would never tolerate her children behaving in such a manner, at which point Mr. Kulesza said, "You really need to stop talking now."
The couple were also told that, since they had been ejected from the plane, they were banned from flying with AirTran for 24 hours. So they were forced to return to Bonita Springs for the night, and Mr. Kulesza missed a 16-hour work shift, and the next day they returned to the airport and can surely be forgiven if they fed their daughter enough Children's Benadryl to fell a stallion. I exaggerate, perhaps, but it's certainly what I would have done. In any case, Elly slept through the return flight home.
The incident has sparked varied responses from those who heard the story. While many people - mostly parents - sympathize with the Kuleszas, others are less inclined. For example, when I related the tale to an unnamed colleague and asked if he had ever heard of an airline bouncing a child from a flight he said, "No, but I'm all for it. Couldn't they have checked her with the baggage?"
This colleague, as it happens, has no kids.
AirTran, meanwhile, has apparently had a change of heart. After the airline received a phone call Thursday from yours truly, an AirTran customer service rep called the Kuleszas, apologized profusely for the incident and refunded them the $595 cost of their tickets.
"We do believe the situation could have been handled differently," said AirTran spokeswoman Judy Graham-Weaver. "We will use this case as a means to train our agents on dealing with this type of situation on our flights ... While there are FAA regulations that mandate all passengers have to be securely fastened in their seat belts before a plane can depart, we need to work with our customers in situations like this to help them - and that is what we will focus on."
Ms. Kulesza is appreciative of the response, but believes she could have calmed her daughter down, if given the chance.
"It wasn't like she had a bomb strapped to her waist," she noted.
AirTran also extended another offer to the Kuleszas - free airline tickets to the destination of their choosing. The offer has been declined.
"I said I appreciated it, but I told them not to bother," Ms. Kulesza said. "We won't ever be flying with that airline again."
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