Airline Denies Seat To Disabled Official

Copyright © 1995, 2010
National Federation of the Blind

          From the Associate Editor: As Monitor readers know all too well, the federal Air Carrier Access Act was passed in 1986 in an effort to protect disabled air passengers from discrimination at the hands of airline personnel. Members of the House of Representatives and Senate made it clear in floor debate that they intended to protect disabled people from such injustices as the exclusion of blind people from exit row seats. As everyone who flies on commercial planes today also knows, ever since the Department of Transportation finished writing the regulations intended to implement the Air Carrier Access Act, the disabled have been in many ways even worse off.

          True, airline personnel now bend over backwards to see that no one that they deem to be unqualified to handle an emergency is assigned to a seat in an exit row. In the old days a blind person was occasionally assigned to such a seat and, if he or she was unlucky, arrested for refusing to move in compliance with airline policy. But by and large, the subject of the capacity of disabled people to deal with the various responsibilities of air travel did not arise.

          Today, hundreds of times every hour, cabin crews across the United States make an announcement at the beginning of the flight in which, by direct statement or by implication, the passengers are reminded that blind people cannot carry out the responsibilities required of those seated in exit rows during emergencies. We know that in fact it is not necessary to assess conditions visually in an emergency in order to do as good a job as others can during a crash, but whether a blind person is present on the plane or not, every passenger on every commercial flight is reminded that the airline thinks that we are incompetent. All this is just one more reminder that disabled people are still being treated like second-class citizens and that we must continue to do what we can to change the situation.

          Blind people are not the only ones who face demeaning treatment by the airlines. Justin Dart is the Chairman of the President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities. He is also a friend and colleague of the organized blind. Recently he has been traveling around the country encouraging people to implement the Americans with Disabilities Act. This means that he flies in and out of all kinds of airports on all sorts of aircraft. Mr. Dart uses a wheelchair, and as a result he has had some clashes with airline personnel that rival the worst of the degradations that blind people have faced in exit row confrontations. In early August of 1991 Mr. Dart had a very distasteful encounter with the flight crew of a small aircraft. The incident reminds us that our battles with the airlines are far from over and that others have reason to stand with us. This is the way that the New York Times described the incident on August 6, 1991:

          In an act that has outraged some advocates for the disabled, a commuter airline affiliated with Northwest Airlines refused to allow the head of a White House committee on the disabled and his assistant aboard a flight on Saturday because both were in wheelchairs.

          Workers at the commuter airline, Mesaba Aviation, told the chairman of the President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities, Justin Dart Jr., and his executive assistant, John Lancaster, that they would not be allowed to board its flight from Minneapolis to Pierre, South Dakota. Mr. Dart and his party were then flown in a larger aircraft to another city in South Dakota and driven 165 miles to Pierre.

          Officials with the airline say they have a policy of denying people in wheelchairs access to aircraft that seat fewer than thirty passengers. Such a policy is allowed under Federal law, according to Department of Transportation officials and legal experts with groups representing the disabled.

          "What really got me angry or upset--no, anger is not the right word--depressed and sobered was the abrupt and shocking revelation of just how far we have to go," Mr. Dart said today in a telephone interview from his hotel in Pierre. "If this thing can happen to a Presidential appointee, someone they know is a Presidential appointee, you wonder what happens to others."

Airline Informed in Advance

          Mr. Dart said he was particularly upset because his office had made the reservations and bought the tickets in advance and had informed the airline that he and Mr. Lancaster used wheelchairs. But until the two men actually tried to board the aircraft, no one informed them that they would be barred.

          The incident was, in some ways, one of the more glaring examples of what advocates for the disabled view as the difficulties endured by those with physical and mental handicaps who travel by plane. It also highlighted two trends that appear to be on a collision course: the increasing mobility of the disabled and the steady rise of commuter airlines, which often use smaller aircraft on which it is difficult to accommodate the needs of people with physical impairments.

          Jeffrey Jones, director of market planning for Mesaba Aviation, said the policy was not meant to discriminate against people with disabilities. He said the narrow aisles and doorway on the 19-seat Fairchild Metro III aircraft that his company flies between Minneapolis and Pierre made it impossible for company workers to carry someone in a wheelchair onto the plane.

          Yet such a policy places some cities virtually off-limits to some people with physical disabilities. Other than Continental Airlines, which provides service from Denver, Mesaba Aviation is the only passenger airline serving Pierre, the capital of South Dakota. Mr. Jones said that, because the city was so small, the company decided earlier this year to stop using a fifty-seat Fokker F-27 aircraft it had been using on the route. It now only flies the smaller Fairchild Metro III.

City Becomes Almost Inaccessible

          Advocates for the disabled say this means the city becomes virtually inaccessible for anyone in a wheelchair who is not flying from Denver.

          Mesaba Aviation is a publicly held corporation that has a contractual relationship with Northwest Airlines, which is also its largest shareholder. Although it is a separate company, it uses the same colors as Northwest and operates at airports under the name, Northwest Airline; often reservations on its flights are made through Northwest.

          Mr. Jones said that the refusal to allow Mr. Dart and Mr. Lancaster to board at Minneapolis airport was the first incident of this type he knew of at Mesaba Aviation and that it could prompt the company to revise its policy.

          But advocates for the disabled insist such incidents are a frequent occurrence because Federal regulations allow it.

          "This doesn't surprise me," said John Bollinger, an official with the Paralyzed Veterans of America. "It's the kind of thing that travelers with disabilities face all the time. Unfortunately, the final rules that the Department of Transportation wrote provide a technical way out for the airlines not to board Justin and others like him."

Special Lifts Being Developed

          Several companies are in the process of developing special hydraulic lifts and wheelchairs that can be used to help people in wheelchairs board small commuter aircraft. On June 12, the Federal Aviation Administration ruled that the Federal Government would reimburse airports for up to seventy-five percent of the cost of such devices.

          Mr. Dart, sixty, is the son of a prominent California Republican who was a major adviser to former President Ronald Reagan. The elder Mr. Dart died in 1984. The younger Mr. Dart was disabled when he contracted polio at the age of 19.

          On the trip Mr. Dart was joined by his wife, Yoshiko, and Mr. Lancaster. They were able to reach their destination only after the company arranged to have them fly in a larger airplane to Aberdeen, South Dakota, and had a van take them to Pierre. But, Mr. Dart said, the van provided by the airline had no back seats, forcing him and his wife to spend the three-hour trip sitting on its floor amid two wheelchairs and luggage.

          "It made me feel like a real second-class citizen," said Mr. Lancaster, a former marine who has been in a wheelchair since suffering spinal cord damage when he was wounded in Vietnam in 1968. "I thought these kinds of problems were pretty much behind us."

          Mr. Dart and his party have been traveling around the country talking with businessmen, state officials, and advocates for the disabled on how to implement the Americans with Disabilities Act, a landmark civil rights law enacted a year ago banning discrimination against individuals with physical and mental impairments. In order to make a connection to their next destination, Anchorage, South Dakota officials had chartered a plane to fly them back to Minneapolis.

          But after inquiries from reporters, officials at Mesaba Aviation apparently changed their minds. Late Monday afternoon Mr. Dart called to say the airline was sending one of their larger aircraft to pick them up in Pierre.

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