The Braille Monitor                                                                                         December, 2003

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Airport Indignities One More Time

by Joyce Scanlan

Joyce Scanlan
Joyce Scanlan

The airline bogeyman is still out there, but Federation unity again triumphs. Remember the days when air travel for blind people was a constant hassle? Our flight experience in those days conditioned us to anticipate numerous problems as we dealt with airlines. Would we be forced to preboard? Would flight attendants confiscate our white canes? Would our preassigned seats be challenged because we had been placed in an exit row? Would we be forced to listen to a preflight briefing, when everything said to us was also repeated to all passengers over the public address system?

Since implementation of the Air Carrier Access Act in 1990, air travel for blind people has calmed down, becoming almost tolerable as we began to be treated with respect and common decency. These routine problems, many of us had begun to think, were now something from the forgotten past. And yet it all came back for many of us recently as we returned from our 2003 national convention in Louisville, Kentucky.

Twenty to thirty blind people were spread out over gates 10 and 12 in the Louisville Airport waiting for our Northwest Airlines flight to Minneapolis to be called. Everyone was happily chatting, recounting the events of another successful national convention.

At last the long-awaited announcement of our flight came, offering preboarding to first-class passengers and those needing a little more time, etc. Because we were all seasoned travelers, we remained seated until our specific rows were called. Then came a second announcement to the effect that "all those requiring a preflight briefing must preboard." Since this also did not apply to this group of blind people, we still remained seated.

Then an authoritarian male voice came on saying, "We have about thirty handicapped passengers who must preboard the airplane." This was immediately followed by "We apologize to our other passengers if this flight is delayed by the refusal of these special needs passengers to preboard." This tasteless and humiliating statement caused all of us, without a single dissenting vote, to sit tight. The announcer then went on to board the plane in the usual manner from the rear to the front, and all of the blind people boarded when our rows were called.

All passengers boarded the plane, and the flight departed for Minneapolis on time. No delay occurred, except for that caused by the panic-stricken ground crew, who called the flight back to the gate because an electrical panel had been left open and needed to be closed.

I have flown on Northwest Airlines approximately once each month for many years and have come to regard that airline with admiration because of the way ground and flight crews throughout the country treated me. Of course, if one lives in Minneapolis, Northwest is the most likely airline to go most places in the United States. I knew on July 5 as we were leaving Louisville that many blind people would be returning to their homes on our flight. It never occurred to me that we would be treated as we were by the Louisville ground crew. I found the announcements appalling.

The reaction of the Federation crowd also caught me a little off guard. In the past, as the anger and fear of airline personnel escalated, our reactions too might have escalated. The reaction of Federationists present was to take everything in stride. In a unified but spontaneous response, everyone sat quietly as these rude and insulting announcements came over the loudspeaker. No one jumped up to confront this attack on blind people. Instead everyone behaved responsibly and maturely in order not to delay the flight or cause undue disruption.

We have, however, written letters to Northwest Airlines officials drawing attention to the incident as calling for education of ground and air personnel on the courteous and appropriate treatment of blind passengers. Here is the letter I sent on behalf of blind passengers of that flight:

July 16, 2003

Mr. Richard H. Anderson,
Chief Executive Officer
Northwest Airlines, Inc.

Dear Mr. Anderson:

Many years have passed since I felt compelled to write to Northwest Airlines to call attention to a problem involving poor treatment of blind passengers by airline personnel. Because I have personally experienced such positive and even-handed treatment by both ground and flight personnel as I travel, mostly on Northwest Airlines, all over the country, I was both appalled and disappointed at an incident which took place as I was returning from Louisville, Kentucky, to Minneapolis recently.

On July 5, 2003, a number of blind passengers had gathered at gates 10 and 12 in the Louisville Airport to await Northwest flight 873 to Minneapolis. We had all attended the annual convention of the National Federation of the Blind held at the Galt House Hotel in Louisville during the previous week. Everyone was cheerfully conversing and recounting the events of a very exciting convention. The first announcement of our flight was the routine statement by a female member of the ground crew about preboarding. Something about "first-class passengers and those needing a little extra time" being allowed to board at this time was said. Every blind person present quietly remained seated, because, as competent and experienced travelers, we saw no reason to respond to that call. Very soon another announcement came saying, "All those requiring a preflight briefing are asked to board at this time." Again, as people who regularly travel by air, everyone remained seated.

The third announcement was given by a very stern and angry-sounding, authoritarian male voice. This announcement was greatly escalated in tone and said something to the effect that "we have about twenty-two handicapped people who need a special preflight briefing. We want these special needs people to preboard at this time." Then came the most cutting and rude comment of all. The announcer went on to say, "If these special needs people do not preboard at this time, we apologize to all other passengers for the delay this will cause in our flight today." Although I am sure every blind person in the group was insulted by this remark, no one rose to board the plane.

Flight officials then began to board the plane in the usual way, beginning at the back, and blind people boarded as their rows were called. Everyone was boarded and settled on time for the flight to take off at its scheduled time. I repeat, the flight took off at its scheduled time. It should be added, however, that the flight was called back to the gate because an electrical panel had been left open and had to be closed before takeoff.

This entire event might be written off as an isolated incident involving panic-stricken ground staff on that day. Blind people were never confrontational; they conducted themselves as responsible citizens and remained calm in the face of uncalled-for, rude treatment.

I urge you to provide appropriate education for your ground staff at the Louisville airport, and I offer the expertise and assistance of the National Federation of the Blind in providing that education. Regardless of how many blind people may have been boarding that airplane--I heard anywhere from twenty-two to fifty--the behavior of the ground personnel was absolutely inappropriate, insulting to your blind customers, and totally uncalled-for. Such an assault on the dignity of blind customers is not consistent with Northwest Airlines' service standards. Thank you for your speedy response to this very serious matter.

Yours truly,

Joyce Scanlan, President
National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota

That was the letter sent to Northwest Airlines regarding this unfortunate incident. On August 1 Northwest notified me that they were investigating the incident and would respond within thirty days.

While I am certain every blind person aboard that flight on July 5 was outraged by the treatment we received at the Louisville Airport, every single person deserves commendation for perseverance and tasteful behavior under difficult circumstances. I think of how it might have been fifteen or twenty years ago. There might have been some argument or heated debate about what we should or should not do. None of that occurred on July 5. We were, without discussion or disagreement, a unified, cohesive group. We can hold our heads high and feel pride in ourselves and in our unifying organization, the National Federation of the Blind.

There you have the article that appeared in the Minnesota Bulletin. A number of people wrote letters to Northwest Airlines. At least one of them received a response--and a response that would have astonished us fifteen years ago. Today, while gratifying, it is more an indication of just how much progress we have made in educating airline officials, even if problems do still occur from time to time. Here is the text of the letter that Judy Sanders received to her letter of complaint to Richard Anderson:

August 26, 2003

Ms. Judy Sanders
Minneapolis, Minnesota

Dear Ms. Sanders:

Richard Anderson has reviewed your letter and asked that I extend a sincere apology, on behalf of everyone at Northwest Airlines, for the inappropriate behavior of our Louisville gate representative on July 5.

As explained in your correspondence, the gate representative for Flight 873 made multiple and insistent announcements that persons with disabilities preboard our flight and indicated that failure to heed his request could result in a delayed departure. Your point that you had no personal reason to preboard is well made, and the conduct by our representative that you described is entirely contrary to the level of service that we want you to receive. Our airport public contact personnel receive both extensive initial training and frequent recurrent training. They are informed that our passengers are able bodied and need assistance only to the extent that they personally request. Additionally, it is stressed that no passenger is required to take advantage of a preboarding announcement.

The actions of our gate representative have been discussed with him, and, while we cannot reveal specifics of any internal or disciplinary action, please be assured that we are committed to preventing a repetition of your experience.

We need to hear from our customers and are very glad that you brought this matter to our attention. You also have the right to contact the U.S. Department of Transportation's Office of Consumer Affairs if you wish to pursue this matter further.

Thank you, again, for writing. Your support of Northwest is appreciated, and we hope to have the continued privilege of serving your air travel needs.

Sincerely,

Richard Edlund, Administrator
Executive Communications
Northwest Airlines
St. Paul, Minnesota

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