Braille Monitor                                                                                 May 2006


A Tiny Incident with Mammoth Implications, or an Aberrant but Dismissible Bully?

by Marc Maurer

Marc Maurer

In the 1980ís officials on many airlines noticed that disabled passengers were part of the traveling public. Apparently the number of disabled people flying on airplanes had increased, and airline personnel concluded that a procedure for managing the increased passenger load must be adopted. Disability rights had been in the news, and the 1973 amendments to the Rehabilitation Act had included provisions intended to ensure access for the disabled to many programs.

Without consulting the blind, many of the airlines established rules that we were required to follow. Examples of these rules include the following: blind people must sit in bulkhead seats; blind people must sit at the back of the plane; blind people must sit in window seats; blind people must sit in aisle seats; blind people must board planes after other passengers have taken their seats; blind people must board planes before other passengers are permitted on board; blind people must remain on planes when they have reached their destinations until other passengers have departed; blind passengers must sit on blankets in case of incontinence; and blind people must not sit in exit row seats. This is not a complete list. There were also many rules about white canes, guide dogs, required safety briefings, required assistance from airline personnel, and the like. Some airlines demanded that, if we were to fly at all, we must have sighted companions.

Some said we must register with the airlines in advance of travel. Some wanted us to provide information for their disability services coordinators. The implication of these rules was that the airlines knew what was good for us, and we would do as we were told.
It is not surprising that the blind rejected such custodial behavior. When we were told that we must sit in the bulkhead seats, we demanded our right as free citizens to sit at the back of the plane. We insisted that our canes not be taken from us and that we have the same freedom of movement that other passengers possess. Confrontations grew; lawsuits were filed; legislation was proposed. One result was that the Air Carrier Access Act became law in 1986. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) often sided with the airlines. After a tremendous struggle most of the restrictions were lifted. The only major one that remains is a prohibition for blind people to sit in exit row seats. Nevertheless, some airline officials behave as if none of the legislation, none of the regulatory argument, and none of the history of struggle took place. Recently airline personnel seem to have forgotten that the blind have the same rights to travel and to move that others have.

When Judy Sanders was coming to the 2006 Washington Seminar, she tried to avoid being required to sit in a bulkhead row seat on Air Tran Airways. She ran into belligerence, stubbornness, and authoritarianism. If her experience marks a trend, conflict in the airways will return. If it is only the bullying behavior of an untutored airline official, perhaps it can be shrugged off and laid in the dust of history. However, we are not inclined to accept without a murmur the decision of airline personnel that our rights and our wishes are less important than those of other passengers.

Here is the letter from Judy Sanders setting forth the details of the incident she encountered:

Minneapolis, Minnesota
February 14, 2006

Joe Leonard, President/CEO, Air Tran Airways
Orlando, Florida

Judy Sanders

Dear Mr. Leonard:

This letter is to bring to your attention a most unfortunate incident which occurred on your airline. On January 29 I was traveling from Minneapolis through Atlanta to Washington, D.C., on flights 853 and 186. The Minneapolis ticket agent asked me if I would prefer a window or aisle seat. I said that my only preference was to avoid the bulkhead. I was assigned seat 10F for both flights. I am assuming that, because I am totally blind, the ticket agent chose to ignore my request for a nonbulkhead seat.

The first flight was uneventful; I accepted the fact that I was in the bulkhead. When I arrived in Atlanta, a well-intentioned employee of Air Tran met me at the jetway to offer some unwanted, unneeded, and unasked-for assistance in getting to my next gate. Some blind passengers would appreciate this assistance; others find it unnecessary. The airlines that handle this the best are those that let us ask for help. After successfully evading your kind employee, I went for food and then to my next gate.

This is where I struck up a conversation with another passenger. I was telling him how I had ended up in the bulkhead when I specifically asked to sit elsewhere. He indicated a desire to sit in row ten, so we agreed to switch seats--he was assigned row 11D. We were both happy.

We boarded and were about to take our seats when a flight attendant told me that I would not be allowed to switch seats because I am blind and would be required to sit in the bulkhead window seat. I demurred and said that row eleven would be fine. The attendant went for assistance in the person of Jon Boling, the customer service supervisor. By the time Mr. Boling arrived, we had taken our preferred seats. Mr. Boling reiterated the demand that I move to the bulkhead, and I asserted my right to stay where I was. I asked for a written copy of the supposed regulation that required me to move; I offered to put my white cane by the window; none of that was acceptable. I was not given anything in writing, and he did not care about the cane. His objection was that I would block the exit of the passengers sitting on my right in case of an emergency evacuation. He said I had to sit in my assigned seat even though I have frequently seen people switch seats.

Mr. Boling was ready to remove me from the plane; however, the situation resolved itself when my new friend said he wanted his original seat back. I agreed, and everyone but me was satisfied.

I was quite concerned about my flights home. Mr. Boling kept stressing that I had to sit in my assigned seat. Therefore I used a computer to choose my seats for the return journey. I had 16D on flights 185 and 858. The flights were two of the most pleasant that I have had. This is so because I was treated like a normal passenger; the crew was courteous and respectful and provided excellent service to all its passengers. They paid no special attention to me in my aisle seat.

I have waited several days to write this letter. When I came home, I was extremely angry and decided that I would be more rational if I waited. I am calling this to your attention so that you can show some leadership in directing your personnel in how to treat blind passengers. Toward this end I would like to suggest that you contact the National Federation of the Blind for assistance in an education program for your employees. You should contact Dr. Marc Maurer, president, National Federation of the Blind, 1800 Johnson Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21230; phone (410) 659-9314.

Let us hope that such incidents will be nonexistent in the future. Thank you for your attention.

Judy Sanders

In mid March an Air Tran vice president called Judy to assure her that Air Tran has no company policy on where blind passengers should sit. He commented that the airline needs organization-wide disability training. He then asked what they could do to keep her business. Would she like to be upgraded to business class on her next several flights? She replied that the only thing that would solve the problem would be effective training, and she offered to arrange to have the NFB provide it to the airline. She also mentioned that a large group of Minnesotans would be traveling to Dallas this summer, and perhaps a group rate could be worked out. Such a trip would give some Air Tran staff, at least, on-the-job training. The vice president said that he would have someone from the group sales desk get in touch with her to explore the possibilities. Nothing more has been heard from Air Tran. But we now know for certain that no Air Tran policy exists requiring blind passengers to sit in certain seats. Let the blind flying public beware.