American Airlines says “no,” but a pilot says “yes”

Next time something about traveling is aggravating, remember that Denise Richard of Little Elm, Texas, would likely trade places with you.

Her flight to Ohio with her quadriplegic spouse appeared to be more of a challenge for an airline crew who should have been more prepared than her. While struggling to help him on and off the plane, the attendants dropped him.

But just when things seemed grim, the pilot himself came to the rescue.

Air travel for the disabled is not something we’re used to thinking about in our increasingly mobile society. When I was a kid, flying on a jet to anywhere was a big — and pricey — deal for everyone. I also remember comfortable coach seats, good manners, social interaction, pleasant appearances, and pilots who mingled with passengers while showing off the cockpit to kids — sigh. But I digress.

Today, the Open Doors Organization, an advocacy group for disabled travelers, makes Disability Travel Market forecasts based on U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) statistics and U.S. Census data. Open Doors estimates that, as of 2007, 70 percent of adults with disabilities — more than 22 million people — traveled at least once in a two-year period. Disabled travelers also spent approximately $13.6 billion on travel. DOT’s Freedom to Travel Survey, a major data source, notes that 12 percent of the disabled have difficulty getting the transportation they need, compared to three percent of persons without disabilities.

While numerous criteria, including the Americans with Disabilities Act, mandate and facilitate access on the ground for the disabled, what about the air? The DOT plugged that hole with the Air Carrier Safety Act, requiring airlines to provide boarding assistance — but the act is not specific about the degree of “extensive personal services” within the cabin.

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How are the airlines doing? DOT’s latest Air Travel Consumer Report shows 59 disability-related complaints for April 2015 – down from 67 for the same time last year; hopefully, the airlines are past the learning curve. However, in that same month, American Airlines had the second highest number of complaints (eight) of the major domestic airlines.

What went wrong

Reality dictates that air travel will never be easy for the Richards, and to their exemplary credit, they were prepared to suck it up –- more than others may be prepared to do. “We flew on American Airlines to Ohio over Easter,” begins Richard. “My husband is a quadriplegic, which makes travel challenging. It’s always a struggle and rarely goes smoothly. We try to roll with it and not get too upset.”

What followed was a not-so-funny comedy of errors. “On our outbound flight from Dallas/Fort Worth, they failed to give us a seat with an armrest that rises, despite multiple calls to the airline’s special assistance department prior to our travel date,” said Richard. “The employees struggled to get my husband up and over the arm rest, and on arrival the employees couldn’t get my husband out of the seat because he was so tightly wedged in.”

The return flight was not much better. One of the original staff from the first flight was again on duty, and agitated, needing to call in reinforcements –- unfortunately inexperienced ones. “When they tried to lift my husband, we both protested, knowing it wasn’t going to work,” continued Richard. “The lifter refused to listen and although he got my husband lifted off the seat, he dropped him against the chair, leaving a huge bruise. Four eventually got him off the plane.”

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But isn’t the airline now required to adequately provide the necessary staff and accessible facilities to prevent this from happening? Apparently, their own guidelines agree, noting that with advance notice, Special Assistance Coordinators will be assigned to assist boarding. One would assume such coordinators would include personnel of sufficient physical ability to do the lifting. Airlines require passengers in an emergency exit row to vouch for their ability to facilitate the exit of many human bodies during a crash landing, so perhaps they can follow their own strategy?

But wait –- I am the Good News Guy. Hang in there.

What went right

Since the days of pilot/passenger interaction are largely gone, imagine Richard’s surprise when Captain David Harvey took off his suit jacket and personally came to their aid.

“He then approached me and asked me to please call the AA special needs number and talk to them about what had happened,” Richard continued. “I did and they apologized and said we should never have been in those seats and assured us that we’d have appropriate seats on our return flight.”

“Later, he handed me his business card,” she added. “He said that if the airline didn’t help us, we should call him.”

Wow, that is surely not in his job description.

“I believe the pilot went above and beyond and his kindness did make a difference at the end of a tough day,” Richard concluded. “If writing about it will highlight his kindness and the need for well trained competent employees to assist disabled passengers, we’re all for it.”

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So are we.

Oh, and one more thing.

Perhaps the most poignant aspect of this story is the Richards themselves, who might teach us a lesson of steadfast positive attitude and resolve in not letting anything keep them down –- or home.

Lest we become a nation of whiners (yes, I said it), think about the next time you might be grumpy about dealing with luggage, standing in a crowded line for a cup of overpriced coffee, or sitting in an uncomfortable seat, which might not be so uncomfortable knowing you are able to get in and out of it yourself.

[Did American Airlines make a wrong right?]

Yes, this was an atypical situation and while mistakes happen, it worked out.
No, not really – the pilot was the only one who knew what to do.

This story originally appeared July 9, 2015.

Andrew Der

Der is an environmental consultant and travel journalist specializing in water science, nature, eco-travel, and cultural destinations

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