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Friday, August 27, 2010

Business Discrimination Worries: Easy Jet

Any person knows domestic air travel is a routinely miserable experience. Cash strapped airlines fly older planes packed to capacity. Flight crews and ground personal are woefully under staffed and subject to intense pressure to adhere to increasingly strict deadlines. Passengers do not help the situation. Many people try to carry on inappropriately large luggage and slow down the tedious boarding process. Tension is the norm as is rude behavior on the part of passengers and employees. Into this mix enters a person that uses a wheelchair and the result is increased misery. When my fellow passengers see me and my wheelchair some openly groan, become angry, annoyed, or worried their flight will be delayed by my presence. In short, they are worried about themselves and their schedule. Airline personnel have a similar reaction: they do not perceive me as a human being and paying customer but extra work that could theoretically delay a flight and get them in trouble. As a seasoned traveler, I do my best to assert my rights as outlined in the Air Carrier Access Act passed in 1990 in a polite and dignified manner. I try to keep my wits about me knowing travel was much harder and in some cases impossible before the law was on my side. In addition I remind myself the commercial airline industry has a long history of actively and aggressively discriminating against passengers with disabilities. These sorts of thoughts keep me calm when confronted with airline employees that are obstructive, unhelpful, and demeaning.

When I travel by plane I know I am entering a hostile environment. When I leave for the airport I feel as though I am getting ready for battle. I know, however, that the battle is one that I will win. Sure I may be treated poorly but I know I will be able to get from point A to point B. The Department of Transportation and the Air Carrier Access insures I will be able to get on and off a plane and navigate the airline terminal. None of this will be easy but it gets done. The fact is the ACA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in air travel. All air carriers are required by law to accommodate the needs of passengers with disabilities. For instance, carriers cannot refuse to transport people on the basis of a disability assuming they do not present a flight safety risk. If a carrier believes a person with a disability represents such a risk they must provide a written explanation. Airlines cannot require advance notice that a person with a disability is traveling (they can require 48 hours notice if a passenger needs a respirator hook up). Carriers cannot limit the number of passengers with a disability. Carriers cannot require a person with a disability to travel with an attendant. These are the highlights of a complex and poorly understood law, one that is not followed in my opinion by airlines. In spite of its flaws, I consider the law essential to my right to fly. I am however worried. In Europe discount airlines have come up with a creative way to discriminate against people with disabilities. Here I refer to those that travel with power wheelchairs.

For those unfamiliar with power wheelchairs, these wheelchairs can be beasts as in they are very heavy. They are also astronomically expensive, in many cases custom designed for the user and as a result singularly unusual. A replacement chair could take many months to manufacture. These wheelchairs are complex pieces of technology that make an independent life possible for a person with a disability. They are not designed to be taken apart and put back together again. Yet this is exactly what some discount European airlines such as Easy Jet expect passengers to do. European discount airlines are using a trick as old as the hills to discriminate against people with disabilities that use power wheelchairs: health and safety. This is an instant red flag in the history of disability discrimination--once people start talking about health and safety people with a disability are screwed. Whose safety is Easy Jet trying to protect? I love this new twist--not the passengers with a disability but baggage handlers. According to Easy Jet no power wheelchair above 60kg can be accommodated unless it breaks up into pieces that weight less than 60kg. Some power wheelchairs can weigh twice as much. No power wheelchair I am aware of is designed to be broken down into separate pieces. Hence Easy Jet has targeted a specific population of people, those that use power wheelchairs, and are actively trying to keep them from flying. People with disabilities that use power wheelchairs have been denied boarding by Easy Jet. This worries me--will other European airlines follow Easy Jet's lead? To date, big carriers such as British Airways and Virgin have no weight restrictions for power wheelchairs. Yet I cannot help but wonder will some discount American based airline try to enact similar policies Easy Jet has enacted? Given the discriminatory history of American based carriers against people with disabilities it would not surprise me.

10 comments:

Claire said...

I once fantasized about getting Sophie a trip via some charity like the Miracle foundation...but the restrictions for travel were prohibitive. Sophie MUST sit in HER wheelchair. She CANNOT sit in an airplane seat. The thought of some bunch of careless baggage handlers dealing with her wheelchair furthermore..OMG. They would wreck it, lose the pieces...you name it. I'm back to a Winnebago fantasy. It's really depressing.

Court said...

When the whole EasyJet situation started to get press, I put a link to an article on my Facebook about it. I ended up seeing many disheartening comments defending EasyJet on my own Facebook page.

I HATE flying. Metal hardware, insulin pump, cane, wheelchair/or scooter and service dog seems to be more than the TSA can reasonably handle. TSA seems to ignore their own rules so now I carry a copy with me.

By time I get to dealing with the gate agents, I'm usually throughly exhausted and significantly less patient. I recently flew to Las Vegas and back and going out I took Jetblue and everything went sooo smoothly. My return flight was with Spirit and it was a nightmare. They tried to bump me from the flight because someone had changed my seat assignment (to an aisle seat that I had no hope of fitting in with my service dog) and at check-in they refused to change it back when this was discovered because the (non-disabled) person they gave my bulkhead seat to had checked in online. They refused to deal with it until I was at the gate, the whole ordeal turned into a full-blown nightmare involving my scooter too. The gate agent I was dealing with told e she couldn't page the CRO when I asked to speak to the flights CRO because she wasn't in yet. The CRO was finally called when they said they couldn't even change my seat to another bulkhead seat because by then everyone ha checked in and they couldn't just change peoples seats. The CRO was rude and most unhelpful and claimed she was new when other management showed up and I told them that she said my only choice was to fly standby on the next flight. I won't go on but it was the worst flying experience I've had to date and I'm a fairly frequent flyer. If I had not been able to bring up a copy of the ACAA on my iphone I doubt I would have gotten on any flights that day. They plane left nearly an 30 minutes late and I'm sure many were pissed with me. However my connecting flight (also Spirit) was equally bad and lucky for me a number of other to be passengers made a scene during the boarding process or I wouldn't have gotten home anytime soon, only one flight to my local airport per day.

I took flip videos and pictures of most of what went down. I planned to write a letter or possibly file a federal complaint. But you know what, I am so sick of writing letters, complaining, when nobody seems to hold people accountable. I'm tired. Obviously I won't fly with Spirit ever again, but unless I suddenly develop a lot of free time, this time I'm opting out.

I prefer to be in the car over driving. Back when I was using a powerchair for a while I flew with it to Florida one. It got damaged to the point it would not be usable without fixing. I had to get a rental (thank goodness that was even available) but arranging all of that up discovery and getting them to pay for some of it was so maddening. Plus is was my first time traveling with a service dog and a chair. It's not a great way to start a vacation and after that I decided 10 hours of less equals car.

I used to love air travel until I started needing all sorts of mobility equipment. I hope that something so transparent as what EasyJet is doing cannot be done here in the US.

The Untoward Lady said...

Someone should pass a similar law like that for busses and trains. I'm too poor to fly and Greyhound's policy is that you need to notify them 48 hours in advance if you have *any* disability and want to ride.

... a policy which I routinely ignore.

Yet that is only possible since I have the privilege of not requiring a wheelchair for my mobility. Greyhound just doesn't run a completely accessible fleet.

What does worry me is that, while I don't need any special equipment on the part of Greyhound and the extent of my required accommodations are "don't discriminate against me and make sure I'm safe from harassment" I'm afraid that the sometimes disruptive nature of my tourettes might make bus line employees reluctant to carry me.

The rule requiring me to register, I'm afraid, might be turned against me because I do have a disability and I didn't register therefore I didn't uphold my end of the bargain in some bizaro sense and thus it's perfectly okay for them to deny me boarding.

That, and I've seen Greyhound require assistants for people who are perfectly independent such as a few months ago when a Deaf woman was initially denied boarding because she was deaf and alone (enough other passengers raised a stink and the bus driver relented).

Becs said...

Untoward Lady - Yes, the Greyhound policy stinks, but then in my opinion, so does Greyhound. If you live near a big city, have you checked out Bolt Bus, Mega Bus (which I believe is run by Greyhound), or what's known around NYC as the Chinatown bus?

william Peace said...

Claire, There is a reason you rarely if ever see people with cognitive disabilities fly on commercial airlines. I can well imagine how Sophie or any other person with a cognitive disability would be treated--horrifically. I am treated with disdain and disrespect and all I do is use a wheelchair.
Untoward Lady, Greyhound is a nightmare to deal with. They have aggressively and purposely discriminated against people with disabilities for years. In fact I read about a paralyzed guy that tried to ride from NY to CA on Greyhound. His trip took him days longer than expected and was a disaster--something he wanted to document. What bothers me the most is that Greyhound provides such poor service to all many of whom just don't have money to fly. The rich and poor have the right to be treated with respect.
Becs, I have heard of the Chinatown bus. I have also heard buses that take one from NYC to places like Atlantic City provide good service. I for one love to ride buses--don't why but looking out the window is peaceful.

Matthew Smith said...

The problem is with the whole business model of low-budget airlines like EasyJet. They are based on selling you just a seat on a plane on a short-haul flight - no meal and no extras, and with some of them you have to pay per item of luggage you check in. It's about keeping fares and costs to the absolute minimum. They would probably argue about safety, but the real reason is that having to shift what is effectively freight, such as bulky power chairs, would require lifting equipment and training of staff, etc., and they are worrying about it compromising their business model. The UK does have disability legislation; whether this policy breaches it would have to be tested in the courts.

william Peace said...

Matthew, I get the business model of discount airlines. We have plenty of them in the USA. At issue is the targeting of a specific population of people. A population I may add that is insignificant in terms of numbers of people flown. The cost of handling a small number of power wheelchair cannot cost much. Imagine if you will Easy Jet decided to charge people who weigh over 200 pounds an extra fee. There would be outrage. Where is the same out rage when discussing power wheelchair users?

Mark Miles said...

Yeah, EasyJet gave me some trouble traveling too before I got a lighter power wheelchair. Now I can travel more easily and not be discriminated against for my wheel chair being too heavy.

Private Jets said...
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