Thursday morning as I ate my oatmeal and scrolled through my Twitter feed, I noticed a story with the headline American Airlines Checked My Dignity at the Gate. I opened the post which was written by Mark E. Smith, or WheelchairJunkie as he is known to me via social media. In case you missed it, here’s a synopsis.
Mark is a power wheelchair user who travels frequently for his job. His recent trip with American Airlines earlier this week started much like any other trip. After working for 5 days at a trade show in Southern California, he was ready to return home to his wife and children. Being familiar with the process of flying while disabled, Mark arrived at his gate ready to pre-board, with his ticket in hand and wheelchair tagged for baggage. He was assisted to his seat and waited for departure as the other passengers boarded around him.
However, Mark didn’t get to take that flight home. Here is how Mark described what happened next:
“Seated in row 24, my attention was called away from looking out the window, to a large group of American Airlines’ flight attendants, gate agents and ground crew – a sea of varying uniforms and two-way radio chatter – coming up the aisle. Without speaking to me, they asked the two women sitting next to me to move from their seats, explaining that they were removing me from the plane. I was immediately alarmed, not knowing what was going on, and asked what the issue was? Everyone in the American Airlines group paused and the entire plane was voiceless – just the mechanical hum of the 737.
I looked from one person to the next to the next, and all just stared. Finally, a flight attendant exclaimed, “This plane isn’t leaving without him!” and sat beside me. Her sudden burst of emotion confused me even more. I was then told that communication between the captain and ground crew instructed that he wouldn’t accept me and my wheelchair on the flight.
I was dumbfounded. American Airlines personnel were refusing to transport me because I am a person with a disability who uses a wheelchair.”
This is not the first time I have heard of a disabled person being refused passage on a flight. Back in 2010, US Airways escorted frequent traveler and motivational speaker Johnnie Tuitel from a flight. Tuitel was in his seat before airline personnel told him he would not be able to fly without a companion, something he does regularly. But, according to this article on CNN:
“US Airways spokeswoman Michelle Mohr said Tuitel was not deemed unfit to fly alone just because he uses a wheelchair.
‘He did not appear to have the ability to assist himself in evacuating in the event of an emergency. He appeared to have a lot of difficulty moving,’ Mohr said.”
Incidents like this just don’t happen in the United States. In 2015, Luke Kenshole was escorted off a British Airways flight in London after all passengers had boarded. His crime? Being disabled. Luke has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair. According to this article on the Daily Mail:
Luke was on the plane before anyone asked him whether he was able to take himself to the toilet, and he said he needed assistance to get onto the wheelchair.
He was then told he would have to get off the plane for health and safety reasons.
Just for the record – I flew from Los Angeles, California to Melbourne, Australia in 2015. I was not able to take myself to the toilet on the plane during the 15 hour flight. Since I pre-boarded the plane before the other passengers, I spent over 16 hours in seat 49C. I was not kicked off the plane for health and safety reasons, although choosing to hold my pee for 16 hours was probably more detrimental to my health than anything else I did that year!
On Thursday, I shared Mark’s post on social media. Some of my friends expressed outrage. Some questioned how it is legal for an airline to act this way towards a disabled passenger. I wanted to answer this question so I started to do some research. I am not a legal expert, and if any reader has insight I welcome you to share it with all of us.
First off, the Americans with Disabilities Act is not the law which governs airline behavior when it comes to disabled passengers. The Air Carrier Access Act governs airlines and provides regulations related to treatment of passengers. According to the U.S. Department of Transporation rule (Title 14 CFR Part 382), airlines are prohibited from discriminating against people with disabilities. The following, taken from the U.S. DOT website, is a few of the prohibited practices:
- Airlines may not refuse transportation to people on the basis of disability. Airlines may exclude anyone from a flight if carrying the person would be inimical to the safety of the flight. If a carrier excludes a person with a disability on safety grounds, the carrier must provide a written explanation of the decision.
- Airlines may not require advance notice that a person with a disability is traveling. Air carriers may require up to 48 hours’ advance notice for certain accommodations that require preparation time (e.g., respirator hook-up, transportation of an electric wheelchair on an aircraft with less than 60 seats).
- Airlines may not require a person with a disability to travel with another person, except in certain limited circumstances where the rule permits the airline to require a safety assistant. If a passenger with a disability and the airline disagree about the need for a safety assistant, the airline can require the assistant, but cannot charge for the transportation of the assistant.
Let’s look at that first bullet point. When was the last time you heard the word “inimical” in real life? In case you don’t know what it means (like me) I’ll save you the trip to the dictionary. Inimical is an adjective which means likely to cause harm or have a bad effect. Used in a sentence: The disabled passenger was bodily removed from his seat because the pilot thought he was inimical to the safety of the flight from Los Angeles to Philadelphia.
Secondly, every airline provides passengers with a contract, usually referred to as Conditions of Carriage. You know that legal mumbo-jumbo you ignore when you purchase your tickets? Yeah – until yesterday I had never read that either. But I did read the American Airlines Conditions of Carriage and found a section called “Acceptance of Passengers” which listed various reasons American may refuse to transport or may remove a passenger from a flight. Number 5 on that list?
Your physical or mental condition is such that in American’s sole opinion, you are rendered or likely to be rendered incapable of comprehending or complying with safety instructions without the assistance of an attendant.
Side note – number 11 is an offensive body odor not caused by disability or illness. I know for a fact that rule gets ignored often! Back to the issue of being too disabled to fly…
Let’s suppose the pilot thought Mark was inimical to the safety of the other passengers on the flight. I don’t know why Mark, a disabled adult, might be more inimical than an unaccompanied minor who might not be able to independently follow directions during an emergency. I have never witnessed an unaccompanied minor being physically lifted and restrained in an aisle chair and removed from the cabin of an aircraft. Would people speak up if that happened? Nobody spoke up for Mark.
“As I scooted across the seats toward the crowd, having to transfer into a dolly-like chair so that they could roll me off of the plane, all of the other passengers watched, silent. Although many clearly heard that I was being removed because American Airlines didn’t want me and my wheelchair on the flight’s manifest, no one questioned why, in 2017, a businessman with a disability was being ejected from a plane? In that moment, I realized the gravity of it all: I was being stripped not just of my civil rights, but of my humanity. For the first time in my life, in the microcosm of that American Airlines Boeing 737, I was discarded as a human being – literally.”
I almost cried when I read this paragraph. Having been late for connecting flights due to weather delays, I have endured the stares when I am carried onto a plane after all other passengers have boarded, the glares and sighs from those around me who are inconvenienced by having to move so I can be lifted to my seat. I cannot imagine what it would be like to be forcibly lifted and removed like a criminal, without an explanation from the crew.
Thankfully, Mark was able to get home on the next American Airlines flight to Philadelphia. His experience was featured on his local television station. You can hear Mark talk about it in this report and you can read what New Mobility had to say about it here.
Every time I fly, a part of my mind wonders how I will react if the crew challenges whether or not I will be inimical to the safety of the flight. Typically, once I am settled in my seat on the plane, the flight attendant comes over to ask how they might be of assistance. If I am flying without a companion, I let them know I might need the plastic bin I use as a footrest in flights moved when we are in the air. Usually, the stranger seated next to me offers to help once I introduce myself and explain how I’m counting on them to secure my oxygen mask if the cabin loses pressure.
The simple fact is once I am on the plane, I am not able to do much for myself. I can usually put in my own earbuds. If I have a tray table in front of me, I am able to hold myself upright so I can eat and drink. Other than that, I am unable to do much more than sleep and count the hours until I can get back into a comfortable seat.
My fear is that one day, an uneducated pilot or crew member will see me and decide I am too much of a risk. When they come for me with the aisle chair, will anyone speak up for me and my humanity?