On March 27, 2017, Mark E. Smith, a regular contributor to New Mobility and power chair user with cerebral palsy, was removed with no explanation from his Los Angeles to Philadelphia flight by American Airlines staff.
To say Smith is a frequent flyer is an understatement. Part of his job as general manager of public relations for Quantum Rehab includes travel to trade shows, and over the years he has flown hundreds of times both nationally and internationally.
The incident began after Smith had transferred to his row 27 seat, and the doors were about to close for an 11:30 a.m. on time departure. As he described in his blog, “Powerchair Diaries,” Smith saw “a large group of American Airlines’ flight attendants, gate agents and ground crew — a sea of varying uniforms and two-way chatter — coming up the aisle.” Without speaking to Smith, they asked the two women sitting next to him to move from their seats, explaining they were removing Smith from the plane.
He was strapped into an aisle chair and wheeled up out of the plane, past most of the passengers, who watched in silence. “No one — flight attendants, ground crew — gave me a direct answer as to why I was being removed,” says Smith. “There was chatter among the group, but they were focused on simply saying ‘they had to remove me from the flight’ someone in the group mentioned ‘getting me off of the manifest’ I’m not sure what that meant.” In his blog, Smith says that the people from American Airlines said he was being removed because of captains’ orders.
Flight 121 departed without Smith, and he waited in the jet way, still strapped in the aisle chair for a half hour before his power chair finally arrived, with the leg rests incorrectly installed. “I had to go into a wheelchair stall for my own privacy to get my leg rests, arm rests, and positioning straps straightened out,” says Smith.
He was re-booked on the next AA flight to Philadelphia, which departed at 3 p.m.. “My flight home was flawless,” he says.
This story has gone viral on social media, which has prompted American Airlines to reach out to Smith and open an investigation. They issued a formal statement, which was sent to several news organizations via email:
“We apologize to Mr. Smith for his recent experience and have reached out to him to gather additional information. American does not tolerate discrimination of any kind and we are committed to providing a positive travel experience for all of our customers.”
“I still have not been given a reason why I was removed,” says Smith. “As one with a life-long disability and frequent flyer this was a confusing, disturbing incident. I certainly don’t want anyone else to experience the indignities I experienced that day.”