‘I have a gun’: Woman with Tourette syndrome stopped from boarding Air New Zealand flight

A woman with Tourette syndrome was stopped from boarding a flight at Hamilton airport despite warning the ground crew about her condition.

Destiny Te Whiu was trying to board a flight to Wellington on March 12, hoping to make it home for her birthday the following day.

The 22-year-old, who was only diagnosed with Tourette’s last year, warned Air New Zealand staff she suffered from the condition and was told there wouldn’t be an issue. However, the captain stopped her boarding the flight after hearing of one of her tics.

It was her first time trying to board a plane since her diagnosis. Adding to that, Te Whiu also has a fear of heights, which has always made flying a stressful situation for her.

She was nervous from the moment she arrived at the airport, worried about her stress worsening her symptoms and the tics getting her into trouble.

“I’m very scared of heights which could be why I was stressed, plus I hadn’t flown in a while.

“It was stressful as hell,” she said.

As different stressful situations trigger different tic attacks, the young woman had no idea what kind of symptoms she would experience at the airport.

As much as she tried to remain calm, to fend off a tic attack, she began to grow more and more anxious – and then an unfortunate tic emerged.

“I started hearing myself saying I have a gun and I thought ‘oh no, this isn’t good’ and thought I have to inform the crew – it’s my first time so I didn’t know and I was by myself.”

She warned the ground crew when dropping off her bag at check-in, as tic attacks are unpredictable and, she adds, she knows her tattoos could make her look more threatening to some people.

“They were like ‘okay cool’. I told them there was this one thing I’d been saying since I arrived at the airport and that was ‘I have a gun’, which I didn’t have,” she said.

She says the crew informed the captain and, a while later, she heard her name being called, just before she watched her bag being brought out again.

“A lady came over five minutes later and sat next to me and apologised and said I couldn’t board the flight, the captain wouldn’t allow me on because of my tics. I broke down in tears,” she said.

“I just wanted to go home and see my family – it had been a month and it was my birthday the next day.

“Two hours later after that bawling session, the lady asked if I wanted a snack and some water. I had some of that. Then she explained I was going to be given a hotel for the night, with complimentary dinner, and they got me a chauffeur to and from the hotel.”

Te Whiu was booked on a flight to Wellington the next morning.

“I was really worried. I had no sleep the night before, which is obviously really bad for tics. Luckily, I got on the plane and just fell asleep,” she said.

'I wouldn't wish this on anyone'

Tourette syndromeis a nervous system disorder that involves repetitive movements or unwanted sounds, known as tics.

“I was born just like everyone else,” she said, explaining how she developed the syndrome as a result of stress.

Te Whiu is now learning to manage the condition, after the initial shock of the diagnosis.

“It’s not something I would ever wish upon anyone,” she said.


A post shared by Destiny Ren'ee Te Whiu (@destinyreneetewhiu)

“When I was diagnosed I was having a really hard time,” she recalled, adding she would shut herself indoors, away from the world.

“I was crying constantly every time I tried to be social with other people, even just paying for petrol was difficult. It was really hard for a month, then I started getting used to it and accepting it.

“I have constant doctor’s appointments and I’m trying to manage it and see where I am with it all the time,” she added.

She says no day is the same, as symptoms vary depending on the level of stress she is under.

These days, Te Whiu is open about Tourette’s soher tics do not come as a surprise to those she interacts with.

She says there is a community of Tourette’s sufferers in New Zealand, which she hopes Air New Zealand will listen to, to ensure this never happens again.

“I want to sit down with people who are able to make a change so that we in the Tourette’s community actually have a say,” Te Whiu said.

She keeps in close contact with Jade O’Connell, who last October was stopped from boarding an Air New Zealand flight from Dunedin to Wellington, to attend Camp Twitch, a camp for those with Tourette syndrome.

Te Whiu says she hopes she, O’Connell and fellow sufferer Leighton Clarke, who all use social media to spread awareness about the condition, can sit down with Air New Zealand staff about the issue.

Air New Zealand apologises for 'misunderstanding'

Air New Zealand has since apologised to Te Whiu and admitted she should have been allowed to board her flight on March 12.

“While customers who have Tourette’s are not required to seek medical clearance before flying regrettably, a misunderstanding of procedure between staff members resulted in the decision being made not to allow this customer to board their flight due to their verbal tic potentially causing a security concern,” Air New Zealand chief operational integrity and safety officer Captain David Morgan said to the Herald.

“Medical clearance is only required if a customer cannot physically complete the flight safely and requires clearance from our aviation medical team.”

Morgan said Te Whiu’s experience was “inconsistent” with the airline’s policies and “not the usual high standard of care/manaaki [Air New Zealand] likes to show customers”.

“The situation has highlighted areas we can improve on. We have been investigating our processes and are making sure all relevant business areas are aligned with the correct policies and procedures to prevent a similar situation happening again, specifically with travellers with Tourette’s or involuntary verbal tics.

“We have contacted the customer to apologise for this experience and have sought feedback on ways Air New Zealand can better support the Tourette’s community,” Morgan added.

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