US Airways Boots Wheelchair-User

We hear about airline denied boardings all the time in Asia, Africa, Australia and (thanks to easyJet) the UK; but they don’t happen all that often in the US. Why? Well quite simply, because we have the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), a piece of civil rights legislation that specifically prohibits such discriminatory behavior. But apparently a US Airways gate agent in West Palm Beach missed the “special needs” day in training; as he recently forced wheelchair-user Johnnie Tuitel to deplane. Why? Because he determined that Mr. Tuitel was “too disabled to fly by himself.”

Now bear in mind Mr. Tuitel isn’t a newbie to air travel; in fact, as a motivational speaker he’s logged almost 500,000 miles in the past few years. Ironically he was on his way to speak at the 2010 National Self Advocacy Conference in Kansas City, when this unfortunate incident occurred.

Everything went fine at check-in, and when the gate agent took Mr. Tuitel to his seat. But things went down hill quickly after the rest of the passengers boarded. That’s when the gate agent returned to the plane and informed Mr. Tuitel that he had to get off the plane. Thinking that there was some kind of a family emergency, Mr. Tuitel quickly complied; only to subsequently find out that he was being booted from the flight.

Under US Airways policy, a passenger can be required to travel with a safety assistant if an employee determines that the passenger is unable to assist in their own emergency evacuation. Although this policy is allowed under the ACAA, there’s a bit more to it. If the airline does determine that a passenger is unable to fly unaccompanied, despite a passenger’s self-assessment that he or she can travel alone; the airline must provide free passage for the safety assistant.

Additionally, if there are no empty seats on the flight for the safety assistant, the passenger must be compensated as required under 14 CFR Part 250 for an involuntary denied boarding. The current rate for that is 200% of the sum of the values of the passenger’s remaining flight coupons up to the passenger’s next stopover, up to a maximum of $400 ($200, if the airline provides comparable transportation).

But I think Mr. Tuitel is owed a little more than that; after all he missed his speaking gig.

So what do you do if you find yourself in the same situation? First and foremost, never agree to deplane before you find out why. If an airline employee tells you that you cannot travel unaccompanied, then don’t be shy about quoting the regulations to them. For those of you following along at home, that’s 14 CFR Part 382; 382.29. And last but certainly not least, if that still doesn’t convince them, ask to speak to the Compliants Resolution Official. These employees are specifically trained in disability law; and all airlines are required to have one. So don’t be afraid to ask for one!

As for Mr. Tuitel, hopefully US Airways will do the right thing. This kind of treatment is just unacceptable in this day and age.