Disabled? To the back of the plane!

When Rosa Parks refused to go to the back of the bus in 1955, she made history. When Randall Ulrich and his wife were instructed to move 11 rows back by a JetBlue flight attendant, did they have a similar case?

Maybe. Ulrich was on a recent flight from Sacramento, Calif., to New York. He had been assigned seats 11E and 11F.

Once my wife and I were seated in our seats, one of the flight attendants came up to us and told us that we would be required to move to different seats, at the back of the plane. I asked the flight attendant why this was so, and she responded that it was because I was deaf.

I am not deaf.

I told her that I was not deaf, and that I have normal hearing. She then proceeded to argue with me about whether or not I was deaf, and I assured her that I was not deaf and did not have any hearing problems whatsoever.

She then told me that I was seen signing with my wife in the waiting area before boarding, so I must be deaf. I told her again that I wasn’t deaf. She then asked me (quoting here): “So, what, you sign for fun? Is it a hobby?”

She then turned to my wife and her about her hearing, and my wife responded: “I’m hard of hearing.” The flight attendant responded: “Close enough. You’ll have to move to the back of the plane.”

Why on earth would JetBlue force two passengers to move to the back of the plane?

Because they were seated in an emergency exit row.

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Under the Code of Federal Regulations, title 14, chapter I, part 121, subpart T, section 121.585, passengers are not permitted to sit in an exit row if …

(5) The person lacks sufficient aural capacity to hear and understand instructions shouted by flight attendants, without assistance beyond a hearing aid.

Here’s how JetBlue responded to Ulrich’s written complaint:

Dear Mr. Ulrich,

Thank you for contacting us regarding your first JetBlue experience. We appreciate the opportunity to respond to your comments and regret the delay in our reply.

JetBlue was founded on five Core Values including: Safety, Caring, Integrity, Passion and Fun. As crewmembers, we strive to embrace those values in all that we do as representatives of JetBlue. We regret that our Inflight crewmember failed to demonstrate her commitment to these values in her service to you.

By way of clarification it is up to the discretion of the Inflight crewmembers to determine whether or not an individual seated in the Emergency Exit Row is capable of responding in an emergency. However, these determinations ought to be made with sensitivity, respecting all diversities.

We have forwarded your comments to our Inflight Leadership Team who will internally address any retraining or disciplinary actions with our crewmembers.

Although we are unable to compensate you for your inconvenience, we have issued each of you an electronic voucher. Your voucher information is as follows: (deleted)

Randall, we value your feedback and hope that you and Lisa will afford us a future opportunity to welcome you onboard JetBlue.


Customer Commitment Crew
JetBlue Airways
Crewmember 52341

I think this could have been handled better by JetBlue. Specifically, the airline could have screened the passengers before they boarded to avoid this awkward situation. They didn’t, says Ulrich.

When I made the online reservations, I answered the questions that accompany being assigned to Exit Row seats. When I checked in at the airport by having my itinerary printout scanned (no complaints), I again answered the questions that accompany being assigned to those seats. When I boarded the plane, my boarding pass was checked off in the box marked “EXIT ROW”. No mention was made about sitting in this row, nor of the responsibilities of sitting in these seats.

But ultimately, JetBlue was correct in asking the couple to move. You don’t want someone who is hard of hearing seated in an emergency exit row. If something should happen, and a passenger were unable to follow instructions, it could put a lot of lives in danger.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at chris@elliott.org. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

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