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Thursday, September 6, 2012
American Airlines: Bigotry Abounds Yet Again
There are dozens of stories in the mainstream media about a 16 year old boy with Down Syndrome and his parents who were not allowed to board an aircraft at Newark airport. The family in question were not novice fliers. They had flown together many times without incident. The family is also very angry--anger I can understand as I know all too well how the airline industry knowingly discriminates against people with a disability. As is usually the case, the airline, in this instance American Airlines, is defending itself and the pilot who decided a 16 boy with Down Syndrome was a flight safety risk. According to American airlines, the boy was agitated and running around the gate area before boarding. This behavior worried the pilot who asked a customer service manager to talk to the family to see if the boy could be calmed down. According to the airline spokesman Matt Miller "that effort was ultimately unsuccessful, and we made the decision to have the family rebooked on a different flight out of concern for the young man's safety and the safety of others". Prior to boarding customer service approached the family twice to explain the pilot was concerned the boy could create a disturbance. There was concern about the boy's size--he is 5'1" and 160--and his seat's proximity to the cockpit. The decision to refuse boarding was not made lightly and based on the boy's behavior according to the airline.
I have two words for the above rationalization: bull shit. According to the family their son, Bede, walked around the terminal before the flight. Lots of people do this. Sometimes their son hums or talks to himself and does so in a quiet voice. According to the family at no point was Bede excitable, he did not run around, nor did he misbehave. So where did things go wrong? The family had the audacity to upgrade their seats to first class. This was a long flight--a cross country flight from the New York area to California. People in first class spend big bucks for their big seats. Much profit is located in first class and the corporate connections are deemed valuable by the airlines. This is the real issue: people with Down Syndrome are not expected to sit in first class. People who use a wheelchair are not expected to sit in first class. The same can be said for any person with a visible disability. First class seats require first class service. First class service is not what disabled people get. We people with a disability get treated like shit by airlines. Yes, I know the airlines are rude to one and all but special disdain is held for people such as myself who cannot walk or those with a cognitive deficit. We represent work to airline personnel and are out of the norm. Given this, we have the symbolic equivalent of the plague.
How did the family get home? They were rebooked in economy class on United Airlines the next day. Their seats were in the very last row. All seats and the row in front of them were empty. This was a far from subtle fuck you.
Lets look at the facts:
The family has flown together approximately 30 times in couch without incident.
The pilot observed behavior he deemed a risk.
The mother was told she cannot video the incident via her phone as she is located in a secure area.
The only thing different was the family upgraded to first class.
The father stated "We went from first class to last class. From the front of the bus to the back, and the only thing I can conclude is that the airlines do not want people like my son to sit in first class". As one who has flown a good bit that is a reasonable line of thought. I find it hard to fathom how a boy, regardless of his size, represented a threat to the pilots or flight safety in general. If we accept this sort of thinking espoused by the airline industry no large well muscled male would be allowed to sit in first class. Rather than mindlessly accepting what he was being told the father questioned ground personnel. He repeatedly asked "Is this only because he has Down Syndrome". If I have learned anything in the post 9/11 world, a world where one gives up all civil rights the second you enter an airline terminal, it is not to question authority. When one does this all bets are off. Any behavior or dress that out of the norm opens one to risk--risk meaning you might be detained against your will or be barred from getting on an air plane for a host of dubious reasons.
I do not expect much to happen. I am sure the story will blow over in a few days. The airlines have consistently been fined by the Department of Justice for violating the rights of passengers with disabilities, particularly wheelchair users such as myself. I suspect the fines levied are lumped into the cost of doing business. I really hold out no hope the airlines will ever change. Institutional bias is very difficult to eradicate. And more to the point, no other passengers are willing to help--ever. This is the down side to the fear mongering Republicans who have waged a never ending war on terrorism. Fear sells and too many Americans have bought into such tactics. Yikes, what a gloomy conclusion.