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Family of 3-year-old with cancer begged Spirit to hold flight. It left without them.

Miami Herald logo Miami Herald 3/16/2018 Chabeli Herrera

MIAMI — Running down the terminal at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, Delray Beach mom Talia Tallman knew she and her family were running a few minutes late for their Spirit Airlines flight to Los Angeles.

But this was one flight the family couldn't miss.

Tallman, her husband, her mother and her three children — 2-year-old Eden, 3-year-old Escher and 8-year-old Eversmith — were flying cross-country to make an important follow-up appointment with Escher's doctors.

The 3-year-old was diagnosed with a very rare, soft tissue cancer, called spindle cell rhabdomyosarcoma, in July. His parents noticed a lump on his neck that then grew to a 5.5-centimeter tumor. Due to the rarity of the disease, the family relocated to Los Angeles to seek treatment at UCLA Health, where Escher underwent three surgeries to remove the tumor.

They returned home to Delray Beach for a week earlier this month while Escher recovered from his third surgery and planned to make it back to Los Angeles Monday for his appointment Tuesday.

But on Monday, as they passed through security, they learned their gate had been changed to one much farther away at the airport, leaving the Tallmans scrambling to make their flight on time. With three children and luggage in tow, the Tallmans decided to send Talia Tallman's mother, Adrienne Becker, ahead of them to their departure gate to alert Spirit that the family was coming.

"She was explaining, 'Please wait. My family is just coming up from security, it's just going to take them a little bit longer to get here," Talia Tallman told the Miami Herald Wednesday. "She said, 'Please wait for us because my grandson had an appointment the very next day with his surgeon.'"

But, citing its policy of only accepting passengers up to 15 minutes before take off, Spirit said it could only wait 30 seconds longer, Talia Tallman said. (Spirit refutes that claim.)

Then it shut the door to the gate, she said.

Five minutes later, she said, she and her family ran up to the gate, only to find the door closed. Her husband, Logan Tallman, began banging on the gate and pleading with Spirit to let his family board the flight. Escher's pain medication was in the luggage on the plane and they'd be without it in case he experienced discomfort from the surgery.

But gate agents told the family there wasn't anything they could do.

"They showed literally zero compassion," Talia Tallman said. "That was really what was so upsetting to me is these people were being so heartless when they had the opportunity to make a big difference in our lives by letting us on the plane."

She took to Facebook with a video describing the experience. "Spirit Airlines, you have showed atrocious service," she wrote.

In a statement to the Herald, Spirit apologized for the inconvenience and said it, in fact, did try to accommodate the family.

"Our records show they were not present at the gate when the flight closed," the Miramar-based airline said in a statement. "Our team made every effort to hold the flight for as long as possible. Ultimately, the flight had to take-off to ensure a timely arrival for our other guests waiting on board."

Spirit rebuts the family's account that they were given 30 seconds before the door to the gate was closed. The airline said its team held the flight for 13 more minutes, closing for boarding at 8:58 p.m. instead of the original time of 8:45 p.m.

Times for final boarding can range depending on the airline, but typically most airlines will not let passengers board if they are not at the gate 15 minutes before departure. Tallman also acknowledged that she was late for her flight, but said she wished Spirit had been more compassionate about her particular case.

Tallman said she was later able to speak to a Spirit agent, who agreed to transfer her flight to Wednesday — but with two connections in Chicago and Denver. Spirit waived a $15 rebooking fee. Her doctors, too, agreed to reschedule her appointment.

But the family couldn't replace the pain medication that left with their flight Monday night.

"He still had to go without pain medication," Talia Tallman said. "I gave him Tylenol. That's all I had."

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