AirTran Bars Wheelchair Passenger from Exit Row – Were They Right?

When 24-year old Sarah Mueller boarded her AirTran flight from Naples, Florida to Milwaukee, she was expecting a comfortable flight. After all she has more than 50 flights under her belt, and she routinely purchases an exit row seat so she’ll be more comfortable on the flight. You see, Sarah has Spina Bifida and in her own words, cramped seating exacerbates the chronic soreness in her joints.

But Sarah knew something was awry the moment the gate agent summonded her to the podium. He wanted to clarify that she needed wheelchair assistance in Milwaukee and that she also requested and paid for exit row seating. She answered yes on all accounts. The gate agent then informed her that she did not meet the selection criteria for exit row seating and that she would have to be reseated. Well kind of – unfortunately he used less than appropriate language when Sara questioned him about her eligibility. Apparently he replied “To sit in those seats you have to actually be healthy.”

It was an unfortunate choice of words, to say the least. All I can say is that I hope AirTran addresses the issue in a future employee training session. I also hope they offer Ms. Mueller an apology for the insensitivity of their gate agent.

In any case, when Sarah boarded the plane, true to the gate agent?s prediction,, the flight attendant reseated Ms. Mueller, even though she said she could perform the exit row duties.

So was the AirTran flight attendant wrong in making Ms. Mueller move?

Although I’m not shy about dinging an airline for tramping all over a passenger’s rights, in this case I have to side with AirTran.

Under the Air Carrier Access Act, airlines can’t prohibit a passenger with a disability from sitting in a particular seat, except when safety rules prohibit it. And in this case, the FAA safety rules do prohibit it. Under those rules, airlines may not seat anyone in an exit row who lacks sufficient strength in both arms and both legs to:

  • Reach upwards, sideways and downwards to reach the emergency exit and exit-slide operating mechanism.
  • Grasp, pull, turn and otherwise manipulate those mechanisms.
  • Push, shove, pull and otherwise open the exits.
  • Lift out, hold, deposit on nearby seats, or maneuver over the seatbacks to the next row, objects the size and weight of the over-wing exit doors (typically 30-40 pounds).
  • Maintain balance while removing obstructions.
  • Exit expeditiously.
  • Stabilize an escape slide after deployment, or assist others in getting off the escape slide.

Now I’m not making a judgment on whether or not Ms. Mueller could perform those duties — that’s not my place — however I think it’s apparent they take a certain amount of endurance. I also think it’s reasonable to assume that if you need wheelchair assistance in the airport — even if it’s just to conserve your energy — then these tasks may prove too arduous for you. After all, it’s an endurance issue. And that’s the call the flight attendant made.

I also have to say that if you took the wheelchair out of the equation, and the flight attendant just tossed her for having Spina Bifida, I’d go the other way.

So in the end it’s a split decision for me. I believe the gate agent was horribly wrong when he implied that Ms. Mueller wasn’t healthy; however I side with the flight attendant for barring Sarah from an exit row set. After all, it’s all about safety.

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