Ironically, on the day Johnnie Tuitel got kicked off a plane, he was on his way to a conference on self-advocacy.
The 48-year-old motivational speaker and author had been flying for years. Like many professionals, his job takes him around the country — and as a wheelchair user with cerebral palsy, he’s a seasoned veteran when it comes to traveling with a disability. So in December 2010, when he boarded a US Airways flight in West Palm Beach, Fla., to Kansas City, he wasn’t expecting any problems. The airline staff knew he depended on a power chair. “I did all the things with the chair that I needed to do,” he says. “The guy at the counter assured me that he would be at the gate to help me. He met me at the gate, put me in the aisle chair, wheeled me on board, placed me in my seat and said, ‘Have a good flight.’”
About 15 minutes later, though, Tuitel began sensing trouble. “Usually by then, I see folks getting on the plane — no one’s getting on the plane.” At that point, the US Airways employee who had helped Tuitel board reappeared with the aisle chair. “He says to me, ‘Mr. Tuitel, we have to talk.’”
Waiting for him back in the gate area was a cluster of airline staff and Tuitel’s partner, who had just seen him off on his trip. “The man who’d taken me off the plane turns to my partner and says, ‘Are you going to tell him?’ She says, ‘No — this wasn’t my idea.’ So he turns to me and says, ‘Mr. Tuitel, we have determined that you are a hazard to yourself and other passengers because of your disability. We are not only removing you from this flight, but unless you fly with a companion from now on, you are banned from all US Airways flights.’
“I was like, where’s the joke? You’ve got to be kidding me,” Tuitel says.
After much fruitless arguing with US Airways, Tuitel rebooked with Delta — who then cancelled on him twice because of mechanical problems. He finally reached his destination the next day, and while he made it to the conference — only 45 minutes before the speech he was scheduled to deliver — Tuitel says he missed out on a number of networking and business opportunities. All because US Airways decided he was too disabled to fly.
As a man whose business is communication, Tuitel did what came naturally to him — he took his story to the media. He drafted a press release, appeared on a local radio show, and “the very next morning, my voicemail was full.” The story was then picked up by CNN, NPR, Fox News and MSNBC. “For about a week,” Tuitel says, “I was one of the hottest stories in the world.”
Then, however, the news interest died down, and US Airways — who had been anxious to make amends with Tuitel in the midst of the negative publicity — stopped returning his phone calls. To this date, Tuitel still has not received satisfaction from the airline for what he views as a case of blatant discrimination.
The Pilot’s Call?
Tuitel isn’t the only person who has made news in the last year for being declared a safety hazard and being barred from flying. In June 2011 John Morris, 24, a quadriplegic from Fort Collins, Colo., had already boarded a Frontier Airlines flight from Dallas to Denver when the pilot determined that his lack of upper-body mobility made it unsafe for him to fly. The pilot then called the police, who removed Morris from the plane. “It was humiliating,” Morris’ mother, Kathleen, told KGMH-TV in Denver. “The officers kept apologizing to me and John kept saying, ‘This is wrong.’”
A spokesperson for Frontier told KGMH that ultimately, the decision to remove Morris from the flight was the pilot’s responsibility and that he made it based on his view of what was safe. Morris took the next Frontier flight, this time with no objection from the pilot.
While the pilot of a particular flight may have the right to remove a passenger based on safety concerns, the right of an entire airline to refuse service only goes so far. Under the Air Carrier Access Act, an air carrier may refuse to provide service based on safety and FAA regulations, but they are not allowed to discriminate based on disability. If a passenger is barred from an airline, it must provide him or her with written justification for the refusal within 10 days of the incident.
Says Richard Devylder, a senior advisor on disability access at the U.S. Department of Transportation, “Yes, ultimately the pilot has responsibility for the aircraft. But … if there is a question about the boarding of an individual with a disability, every airline is required to have a complaint resolution official, or CRO.” When a conflict occurs, the first thing a person with a disability should do is ask to speak with the CRO. “Where we see a breakdown is when someone is denied boarding, and a CRO is never offered.”
Devylder, a quadruple amputee who uses a power chair, has personal experience with this issue. In one instance, he was checking in at the gate and the flight attendant asked him if he could evacuate on his own in case of an emergency. “I said that depending on the situation, I might need some assistance — and that just set off a wildfire,” he says. After 20 minutes of discussion, the crew determined that Devylders would not be allowed to fly without an assistant. “On that occasion they had a pilot who was deadheading [onboard the flight as a passenger]. They said, ‘Either you let this pilot fly next to you or we’re going to have to deny you boarding.’ So the pilot flew with me. Even he thought it was ridiculous. He said he was happy to do it so I wouldn’t miss where I was going.”
Uncommon But Possible
As shocking and ridiculous as these stories sound, they don’t necessarily constitute an epidemic of blatant discrimination against air travelers with disabilities. Such instances appear to be much more common outside the U.S. In April 2011 the European Union announced that it would be issuing new air-travel guidelines in the wake of several high-profile incidents where people with disabilities were barred from flights.
In the U.S., the inconveniences of traveling while disabled are still mostly mundane — damaged wheelchairs, missed transfers, hangups at security checkpoints. Nevertheless, whenever a wheelchair user rolls into an airport terminal, their right to fly at all may be questioned. So what should a traveler do to avoid such questions, or solve problems when they do arise?
Before the flight, Devylder suggests speaking directly with the airline’s disability services staff, rather than simply submitting information through the airline’s website. “Every airline has at least one person on duty who is responsible for services to people with disabilities,” he says. “It’s better to have that one-on-one verbal conversation.” In addition to asking for the CRO, he also recommends filing a formal complaint with the Department of Transportation whenever a disability-related problem occurs. “It’s really important — we watch for a pattern.” This past year, the DOT fined both AirTran Airways and Delta Airlines for failing to comply with the ACAA.
If you fly frequently out of a certain airport, Tuitel recommends taking a personal approach — getting to know the airport’s staff. “If they know you, they’re going to work for you and with you,” he says. If the airport is unfamiliar, “get there early, be very specific about your needs, and do not in any way tell them what you can’t do. Always focus on what your abilities are. If you tell them what you can’t do, it sends up red flags.
“The issue isn’t that I have a disability,” he adds. “The issue is that I have a job to do, I have children to take care of, I have responsibilities. And if I’m not able to do them, it’s a fundamental problem.”
• Air Accessibility (U.S. Department of Transportation): www.dotcr.ost.dot.gov/asp/airacc.asp.
• Accessible Air Travel — A Guide for People with Disabilities (available for download from United Spinal Association): www.unitedspinal.org/pdf/accessible_air_