Devoted Beyoncé fan Jon Hetherington thought his 25-year dream of finally seeing the music superstar in person was ruined after an airline said his wheelchair was too tall to fit on a plane. Then, the Beyhive stepped in to make sure his dream came true.
Hetherington, 34, has cerebral palsy and uses an electric wheelchair. He planned to see Beyoncé in concert for the first time at her Renaissance Tour stop in Seattle on Sept. 14. But, when he arrived at Oregon’s Eugene Airport for his flight, he was told that wasn’t possible.
In an interview with TODAY.com, Hetherington explains that when he tried to check in his chair, an Alaska Airlines employee informed him that his wheelchair “exceeded requirements to fly” by four inches. He was confused, considering he took an Alaska Airlines flight to Seattle just a few weeks prior for the opening night of singer Janelle Monáe’s tour.
“I had never heard that before. That it exceeded requirements to fly and then it was too tall,” Hetherington shares.
The Alaska Airlines employee, who Hetherington recognized from his trip to the airport for the Monáe concert, told him that the airline had problems moving his chair on the previous flight. He says the employee went to get tools to try to collapse his wheelchair.
“I’d never seen anybody collapse it,” Hetherington says. “I didn’t know if you could.”
They attempted to collapse the chair before the employee eventually told Hetherington he wouldn’t make his flight.
“‘We’ve looked at every possible flight, every airline and the only plane that will accommodate your wheelchair is an Airbus. And there’s only one Airbus going to Seattle,’” the employee said, according to Hetherington. The Airbus arrived in Seattle the day after the show.
On the Alaska Airlines website, the maximum dimensions for a wheelchair that can fit on a Boeing airplane are 500 lb / 34” (86 cm) in height by 45” (114 cm) in width. The dimensions for an Airbus are listed as “500 lb / 46” (116 cm) in height by 71” (180 cm) in width.
"Our Boeing aircraft have dimension limitations when it comes to loading battery-powered mobility aids, like a wheelchair, into the cargo hold," an Alaska Airlines spokesperson said in an email to TODAY.com.
"When our team determined the wheelchair would not fit on this aircraft because it would not fold or collapse, we tried to re-accommodate our guest on another flight but no viable options were available," the spokesperson said, adding Hetherington's ticket was refunded.
Hetherington says after he was told his wheelchair couldn't get on the flight or any others until the day after the show, he was then given a complaint form to fill out and told he would receive a refund.
“I went outside and that’s when I recorded the TikTok while I was waiting for a ride to come get me,” he says. The avid social media user, who has about 23,000 followers on TikTok, posted a video on Sept. 14 to simply vent about his experience.
“Well, guess I’m not going to Seattle and I’m not seeing Beyoncé,” he said in the clip before explaining what happened.
“So, ableism strikes again,” he concluded at the end of the video.
Members of the Beyhive came across the video, which now has over 100,000 views and 1500 comments. Fans of the record-breaking Grammy-winner sympathized with Hetherington and quickly worked to bring more attention to the post. They tagged Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Solange Knowles, Parkwood Entertainment, Beyoncé’s production and entertainment company, and BeyGOOD, her foundation.
Hetherington says he was “really surprised” after seeing the reaction to his video. “I usually get about a couple of 100 views on my videos. So I was not expecting it to take off and the way that it did,” he says.
The Beyhive also shared his story on Instagram and X, formerly known as Twitter, to garner as much support as possible.
Hetherington says the love fellow Beyoncé fans showed him was especially meaningful because he “had back to back experiences of ableism that really (were) just (demoralizing).” He shares that after seeing Monáe there weren’t any accessible taxis available and he was left stranded from midnight until 9 a.m. So, he wasn’t optimistic after he didn’t make it to Beyoncé’s Seattle show.
“After thinking, ‘Here I am. I’ve lost out on Beyoncé’…And it looked like it wasn’t going to happen. I just thought, ‘Well, that’s the end of that and I’m really pissed about it. But, you know, what can I do? It’s over. I tried. It didn’t work out,’” he recalls.
But, the Beyhive’s determination paid off. A few days later, a representative connected to the singer’s team reached out to him. Soon, he was headed to Arlington, Texas, to see her show at the AT&T Stadium on Sept. 21, fulfilling his lifelong wish of going to a Beyoncé concert.
“I was excited,” he says. “I felt like it was very surreal…Here I am, what eight days prior, and it gets snatched away.”
He continues, “To have that turn around because of this incredible response and to make that a reality is a huge thing.”
Hetherington posted a picture of him smiling from his floor seats as he waited for the concert to begin on Instagram.
“We partied, we sang, we danced… HARD. Beyhive, you made this happen, you pushed and tagged like the internet has never seen. Tonight, for the first time ever, I had a seat on the floor for a concert,” he wrote in the caption, in part.
He tells TODAY.com that his favorite performance was “Heated,” from Beyoncé’s latest album, “Renaissance,” and that he was “in awe” watching her perform. He calls the “Cuff It” singer “one of the greatest entertainers and performers of all time.”
“It’s literally you’ve been waiting your whole life to just be in the room and hear that voice. And here it is. It’s happening,” he says, remembering the moment she appeared on stage. “I couldn’t have the words to (express) what I was feeling at that time.”
He also uploaded photos of him meeting Beyoncé, mom Tina Knowles-Lawson and the dancers and band.
“Long live the Queen! Forever shall she reign,” he wrote beside a photo of chatting with the music icon.
In his caption for his post with Knowles-Lawson, he said he wanted to keep his conversation with Beyoncé a secret for just the two of them to know.
However, he did share with TODAY.com what it was like to be in the “Halo” singer’s presence.
“It was almost like we were very present with each other but almost out of body. When you’re having this experience where Beyoncé literally walks over and kneels down in front of you and staring at you and smiling in your face, it’s just kind of like you forget how to speak for a minute,” he explains, laughing. “You forget what language is for a second. So really, I don’t know if there is a way to describe it accurately, fully.”
Despite having an unforgettable night at the Renaissance Tour, he points out that it came from an all too familiar struggle with ableism. He says he received a refund from Alaska Airlines but he has not been personally contacted. Truthfully, he adds, he doesn’t know what good would come from the airline reaching out to him.
“Because for me, this is about ableism,” he says. “I understand my ‘moment in the sun’ or ‘my 15 minutes,’ whatever you want to call this, is going to disappear.”
In an email to TODAY.com, an Alaska Airlines spokesperson said the company is "always aiming to do better as we encounter situations such as this one."
"We feel terrible about our guest’s travel experience with us," the statement reads. The spokesperson also suggested people who use a mobility aid reach out ahead of their flight and file a "special service request (SSR) for a mobility aid so we can alert them if there’s a possible issue."
While Hetherington appreciates the attention his story is getting online and the overwhelming support he received from the Beyhive, he wants to stress that his struggle to make it to the concert “is not new.”
The U.S. Department of Transportation notes that only manual wheelchairs can be stowed in a cabin and that “large and heavy powered wheelchairs” are typically placed in the cargo area of the aircraft.
The department also recommends that flyers speak to a Complaints Resolution Official, an expert on disability accommodations, if they feel their rights have been violated or if an airline employee is not able to accommodate them.
“Airlines are required to make one available to you, at no cost, in person at the airport or by telephone during the times they are operating,” the department says.