Robbie and Sarah Kitchen expected their family summer vacation to Florida to be a dream trip after Covid and a health scare.
The family of five from Dundonald in Northern Ireland originally planned to visit the Sunshine State in 2020 but Covid dashed the plan. Then Robbie was diagnosed with prostate cancer and spent months in treatment before being given the all-clear.
Finally, in June 2022, they were packed and ready to depart from their local airport, Belfast City. They had a confirmed booking with 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 insisted, despite protests from parents, that two of the children should be driven across the Irish border and flown 4,000 miles alone.
The first problem the family learned of was with check-in at the Northern Ireland airport.
Ground crew separated their daughter Molly, 16, and older son Zack, 18, and asked them to wait at a separate desk.
The parents and their youngest child, three-year-old Charlie, received their boarding passes. But as Sarah Kitchen told the BBC Ulster programme In your namesaid the ground staff there was no room for the older kids.
“They said, ‘Sorry, the flight is overbooked and there is no room for your other two children. We just put them on the next flight.”
Ms. Kitchen explained that the next flight would arrive after the onward flight to Florida departed.
“They said, ‘That’s just the way it is. We can not do anything.”
Under European air passenger rights, airlines are legally obliged to ask volunteers for a later flight before denying boarding to passengers who need to fly as booked. Aer Lingus did not do this.
“I was in shock trying to process what we could do,” Ms Kitchen said. “The children were devastated and just couldn’t believe what was happening. So I said can we at least swap and let one adult with one child and then one of us go with two children?
“They said, ‘No, if you do that, you’re giving up a seat voluntarily, and that also invalidates your seat further into America.’
“I was trying to get our point across and the people behind in line could see how desperate we were and they started arguing for us and saying, ‘Did you ask, maybe someone would offer, their place to give up and swap – you could take the later flight?”.
But, she says, the ground crew said, “No, the plane is on board. We can’t and you have to come now, we have to get you on this plane or you’ll give up your seats.”
Ms Kitchen then decided to fully explain the circumstances.
“I went over and chatted with the staff and explained to him my husband’s situation and that this was the vacation of a lifetime and we just didn’t want to be separated as a family – was there nothing you could do just to keep us all together?
“There was no sympathy.
“The youngest was so upset and cried most of the flight. I was shaking – I didn’t know what was going to happen to the other two and I was just so nervous for them.
“By the time we landed and were able to turn the phones on, my son had sent a message that they had been placed in a taxi from Belfast City Airport to Dublin Airport where they would be boarding a plane that would take them to Orlando.
“It was supposed to be a separate flight to America. We had no say in that decision and that upset me.
“They should just get to the airport and figure out where to go next. They were given no flight details – they were just told to go to an Aer Lingus counter. My son was very upset at this point.”
At Heathrow, the parents spent their time on the phone talking to someone at Aer Lingus.
“We were on the phone, put on hold and unable to speak to a real person to find out what was going on.”
Just before the parents and youngest child had to board the Virgin Atlantic flight at Heathrow, they heard about their older son.
“The last update we got from him was: ‘We’re still queuing at the Aer Lingus counter. We don’t have tickets. We were told our flight takes off in about an hour.
Others in the queue at Dublin Airport urged the youngsters to go to the front – but when they did, ground staff told them to go back and wait with their family.
Ms Kitchen says her disgruntled son Zack told Aer Lingus staff: “That’s the point, I don’t have my family with me, we were sent here to try and get us on a plane.”
Back at Heathrow, she says the Virgin Atlantic crew were more understanding on the flight preparing to depart for Orlando.
“As soon as we got on they could tell something was wrong and they sent down a service manager to take all the details. She went away to try and call Aer Lingus.
“I was just so upset at that point. I was just heartbroken that our family trip was being ruined like this, and even more nervous – I didn’t know if they were even going to get on the plane and make it to Orlando. The girl actually gave me a big hug.”
Then one of the Virgin Atlantic pilots came to speak to the parents. She told them: “I just spoke to the pilot of the Aer Lingus flight from Dublin to Orlando and your children are in their seats.”
Ms Kitchen says: “At that point I was able to breathe again. I could relax; I knew that at least they were safe. I knew they were on their way and we would see them soon.”
The family met at the Orlando airport but say the first few days of their vacation were spoiled by the stressful start. “It took us a few days to even get into vacation mode because everyone was so excited,” says Sarah Kitchen.
When she complained to Aer Lingus about her treatment, an account executive told her: “I am so sorry to hear about your disappointing experience when you and your family flew with us recently.
“I can understand your disappointment with some aspects of our service that you have described.”
Aer Lingus offered a flight voucher worth €50 (£43) per person. Under European air passenger rights, the two children were each awarded £520 in cash compensation for being denied boarding.
Alongside the cash compensation, Ms Kitchen says: “I would like them to at least acknowledge the trauma we have been through and accept that it is unacceptable to separate a family without consent, without a clear, detailed plan of how we will be reunited.” would again. You made that choice.”
In a statement, Aer Lingus said: “We sincerely apologize to Sarah and her family for their experience – this is not the level of service that we aim to provide at Aer Lingus.
“Our ground operations at Belfast City Airport are being handled by a third party – we will be conducting a thorough investigation into the circumstances of this incident.
“Our customer service team was in direct contact with Sarah to arrange compensation.”