Travelers With Disabilities Flying the Not-So-Friendly Skies

Johnnie Tuitel, shown in his wheelchair
Johnnie Tuitel, a half-million-mile flier, was denied entry on an US Airways plane because of his disability.

This holiday season, many people will travel by air to spend time with family, hit the ski slopes, or relax on a tropical beach. As they too often expect, traveling on commercial airplanes is not always the most pleasant experience. Cramped legroom, baggage fees, subpar food, long check-in lines, even sitting next to someone with a cold — they are aggravating and uncomfortable. For travelers with disabilities, it is a unique challenge because of the logistics involved in traveling efficiently through the air in very tight quarters. As they should, air carriers are obligated — and in the United States required by law — to accommodate travelers with disabilities.

However, as a recent spate of incidents showed, there continues to be a lack of awareness among some airlines about the capabilities of travelers with disabilities when “flying the friendly skies.” In these cases, travelers with disabilities were not accommodated for reasons of airline safety — a claim that indicates ignorance of a disabled traveler’s capabilities which have little to do with safety.

In the United Kingdom, British carrier EasyJet informed Craig Murray, a teenager with muscular dystrophy, that his wheelchair was too heavy to be stowed aboard one of its airplanes, and told him to break it apart so it could go under the per-passenger weight limit for safety reasons. Craig’s wheelchair was not designed to be taken apart, and he had already flown with this wheelchair on two other airlines in the past without incident. He and his family wanted to book with EasyJet for their Cyprus vacation because the tickets were cheaper than on other airlines. Without tickets from EasyJet, Craig’s father said, “I don’t think we will be able to afford to go [to Cyprus] now.”

In September, Johnnie Tuitel boarded a US Airways flight from Florida to Kansas City when, as he sat down in his seat, he was told by an airline manager that he was “too disabled to fly without someone else with him” and he was escorted off the plane. Tuitel, who has cerebral palsy, travels for work — he is a motivational speaker — and already flew 500,000 miles over the years without incident. He ended up boarding a Delta flight but missed his speaking engagement in Kansas City.

Zuhair Mahmoud, a blind traveler
Zuhair Mahmoud was informed by FlyDubai airline that he needed a companion to fly with him.

Sometimes it is as simple as looking over the person and determining he or she can’t fly. Zuhair Mahmoud, a blind man from Arlington, Virginia, was checking in at the Dubai airport for a FlyDubai flight to Amman, Jordan. At the check-in counter, he was told, “Well, we can’t take you. You’re traveling alone.” FlyDubai’s policy, apparently, was not to allow a blind traveler to fly without a companion.

In this day and age when more people with disabilities are living independently, more travelers — whether disabled or non-disabled — are traveling by air and presenting air carriers with logistical challenges. In the United States, the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) provide solid and enforceable guidelines to ensure the travel experience for a person with a disability is functionally equivalent to that of a non-disabled traveler. An essential clause of the ACAA states that “no air carrier may discriminate against any otherwise qualified individual with a disability.”

The ACAA covers all U.S.-registered air carriers and all carriers traveling to and from the United States. Code share partners also fall under the ACAA’s jurisdiction. Outside the United States, member airlines of the International Air Transport Association (IATA) observe codes of practice which are very similar to the laws enforced within the U.S.

Yet among some airlines — even larger and well-established airlines like US Airways — there can be a lack of awareness of the minimum standards required to accommodate travelers with disabilities. These airlines often fall back on safety claims that have little to do with disability, particularly when these travelers have already demonstrated they can travel independently and safely. EasyJet, known among European travelers for its low fares within Europe, was insistent on enforcing weight limits on stowable baggage for safety reasons — perhaps to avoid lawsuits or fines. By not making an exception for a single person with a disability who wanted to save money on his Cyprus vacation, the airline demonstrated a lack of business foresight in following IATA protocols, especially when other airlines were able to accommodate him. As a result, EasyJet received publicity it did not want, and it ruined a family’s plans for some fun in the sun in Cyprus.

By the same token, US Airways and FlyDubai used their own interpretation of safety protocols to explain their denials of service to Johnnie Tuitel and Zuhair Mahmoud, who are themselves frequent and independent fliers. This also resulted in negative publicity, as news of their treatment hit media wires around the world.

Safety is paramount when flying on airplanes. Travelers with disabilities, on the other hand, have often traveled on airplanes on their own with little or no impact on safety. So, when an airline makes a determination that it cannot accommodate a traveler with a disability, it must have a very good reason for doing so on the basis of safety, or risk negative word-of-mouth, or worse yet, an unflattering story in the media.

Most importantly, when airlines can move mountains to make travel as hassle-free as possible for these travelers, they often get paid back in the form of gratitude, loyalty, or better yet, repeat business from both disabled and non-disabled customers.  That is indeed flying the friendly skies.

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