Wishneff says misunderstanding about medical condition contributed to incident at airport

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ROANOKE, Va. (WDBJ7) A Roanoke businessman and former City Council member says he was asked to leave the Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional Airport recently, after a disagreement with airline employees. Wishneff says he believes a misunderstanding about his medical condition contributed to the exchange.

It started with a missed flight.

"For some reason I never heard them call the plane," Wishneff told WDBJ7.

On his way to a conference and a series of important business meetings in Miami, Wishneff said he was first told he would be able to reschedule his flight on American Airlines.

But he says the situation went from bad to worse, when a different customer service representative arrived.

"He looked at me and said, 'I don't care what that says. You're not getting on that plane.' And not only are you not getting on that plane, you're not getting out today," Wishneff said.

Wishneff is living with Huntington's disease, a progressive, disabling brain disorder that affects his speech and the way he walks.

"A lot of people just assume that I am drunk all of the time," Wishneff said in an interview. " And that obviously is a result of the Huntington's, something unfortunately I'm going to have to live with."

He took his complaint to members of the Roanoke Regional Airport Commission, who thanked him for sharing his experience, even if the commission has little control over customers' interaction with the air carriers.

Bill Gust is the chairman of the Roanoke Regional Airport Commission.

"Unfortunately we hear about a lot of things we can't control, but we do want to hear from the traveling public," Gust said. "It's the only way we'll know how we're doing and what we can do to help them."

A spokesman for the airport says the police officer who responded did not accuse Wishneff of being drunk. Brad Boettcher said the officer is certified in Crisis Intervention Training and quickly recognized that Wishneff wasn't intoxicated.

Boettcher said the officer sat with Wishneff to help calm the situation.

"Mr. Wishneff did calm down but then later became upset at the treatment he received from airline staff, Boettcher wrote, "his wife arrived at the airport and he was escorted out."

Boettcher said he is meeting with a consultant on Friday to create a training program for Commission staff. He hopes airline carriers and rental agencies will participate as well.

We contacted American Airlines and are waiting for the company's response. Wishneff says he received an apology from an American Airlines representative during a phone call Tuesday night.