Pfc. Zach Riffle was killed in a crash involving a military vehicle in North Carolina on Jan. 19.
The family said they had expectations based on a precedent set with other fallen military members during their returns home.
On Thursday, Riffle’s family went to the airport to pick up his body, which was being brought home from Camp Lejeune on multiple flights by American Airlines through arrangements made by a funeral home.
“We went up there expecting to be able to watch the plane land, as well as watch Zachy deboard the plane, along with his escort, and receive him on the tarmac,” said stepmom Jennifer Plum.
According to the family, American Airlines told them COVID restrictions changed those protocols.
“We were ushered very quickly into a break room, and that’s where we first learned of things that weren’t going quite right,” said Plum.
According to the family, American Airlines tried to put the four parents and four siblings in a small room with few chairs, until the Marine Casualty Assistance Calls Officers requested the airline open a secure area that was more accommodating.
“Once we got settled in there is when we learned that, due to what was identified as COVID policy changes and staff shortage, we were told we would not be able to be on the tarmac at all to watch the plane land or to see Zach deboard the plane,” Plum continued.
Airline officials confirmed that they did not have enough employees on hand to accommodate having Riffle’s full family on the ramp.
The family advocated to be allowed on the tarmac but were denied. Plum asked the tarmac manager that the moment be recorded for them, but she said her first request was denied. The airline claimed an employee with that footage could share it inappropriately, Plum said.
“We obviously weren’t going to settle for that answer, so I told them at that time we would be going public with the treatment that we were receiving, and that we would sign a waiver of liability, whatever it took to get this moment recorded because they would not let us see it,” said Plum.
Eventually, an airline employee did use a phone from one of Riffle’s Marine escorts to record the de-boarding; the family was not permitted to leave the break room during this time.
“Finally, when we were able to receive Zachary, we were taken into a cargo terminal alongside of other boxes and crates, etc., and that is where the Marines performed their ceremony,” said Plum.
The family said they felt Riffle was treated as regular luggage.
They did receive a response email from American Airlines Customer Experience Managing Director Eric Mathieu stating that the situation was escalated to the highest members of the leadership team, and he was personally investigating the details of the situation.
American Airlines released a statement to WFXR’s sister station, WBOY, on Monday:
“We are committed to honoring our fallen heroes. We are sorry we fell short of the family’s expectations and are reviewing the matter internally. A senior member of our team has reached out to Pfc. Zachary Riffle’s family to express our condolences and hear more about their experience.”
According to Plum, the passengers on the plane were not notified that they were flying on board with a fallen service member.
Also at issue is whether Riffle’s body was unloaded first or not. Plum adamantly said that it was not. However, American Airlines officials claim that his body was unloaded first.
The family of Riffle wrote an open letter to American Airlines. In it, they asked people to boycott American Airlines and take their business elsewhere.