Can Airlines Deny Me Passage Just Because I’m Disabled?


airplane_landing_199029I’m getting a lot of questions this week in regards to Mark Smith’s recent incident with American Airlines. Smith is a power-wheelchair-user who was on his way home from Abilities Expo in Southern California, when a gaggle of American Airlines employees boarded the aircraft and informed him that they needed to remove him from the airplane because of “captain’s orders”. So he was transferred to an aisle chair, and taken back to the jet bridge, and was later transported on another American Airlines flight.

That’s pretty much all we know, as American Airlines has been relatively silent on the issue. They did however respond to JT Genter at The Points Guy with this cookie cutter quote:

“We apologize to Mr. Smith for his recent experience. We are investigating 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. Mr. Smith was re-accommodated on American’s next flight to Philadelphia.”

So of course my readers are not only concerned about what happened, but even more concerned if it could happen to them.

First of all the captain has the authority to deny boarding to someone for “safety reasons”.  It happened to one quad back in 2011, when he was denied passage on Frontier Airlines because the captain felt his homemade trunk support system was a safety issue.

Although the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) didn’t really cover this issue at that time, the Federal Aviation Administration later weighed in on it in support of the captain.

The captain can also deny boarding if he or she feels a passenger is too ill to fly. That happened to Elizabeth Sedway on Alaska Airlines in 2015. Of course in the absence of a doctor, the airline also consulted MedLink on the matter.

And then there was the very sad case of Vilma Soltesz back in 2012. Because this critically ill passenger weighed in at an estimated 425 pounds and had a distended belly, Delta denied her boarding as they claimed the aisle chair would not support her weight. Subsequently Lufthansa also denied Soltesz passage because even though they blocked three seats for her, airline employees were unable to lift her safely into them. After that Soltesz’s health continued to go downhill, and she died two days later.

And although all these stories do illustrate that the captain has the authority to deny boarding, none of these cases sound like Mr. Smith’s. In fact, we really don’t know much about that incident. Still the question that keeps flooding my inbox this week is

“Can that happen to me?”

Well, I can’t guarantee anything; however you have a better chance of fighting the issue if you are prepared. And to do that you have to understand the law – in this case that’s the ACAA

  • Under the ACAA the airlines can require that you travel with a safety assistant if they feel you can’t physically assist with your own emergency evacuation.
  • The only duty of the safety assistant is to help a disabled passenger in an emergency. Anyone who is physically able can act as a safety assistant.
  • That said, the airlines are not required to appoint a safety assistant; however if they don’t, they can’t refuse a person designated by the passenger.
  • So Basically if the gate agent says you cannot travel unaccompanied, all you have to do is ask another passenger to act as your safety assistant.

Problem solved!

But what if the airline employee doesn’t know the law, or even worse, doesn’t listen to you? That brings me to the Complaints Resolution Official (CRO) –  who is the person you want to go to if you are having problems or issues getting accessible services. All US airlines (and foreign airlines on routes to and from the US) are required to have a CRO available during operating hours. This airline employee knows the law and is trained to solve access-related issues. So, if you are ever asked to disembark the aircraft, or you are denied boarding, ask to speak to the CRO.

And if you happen to run into an employee who doesn’t know what a CRO is, then ask to speak to a supervisor – I guarantee you that they will immediately direct you to the CRO.

Truly there are no guarantees in life, but knowing about the CRO gives you a better shot at having a safe and accessible experience in the friendly skies.