Braille Monitor August-September 1985
One of the major items on the agenda of the 1985 convention of the National Federation of the Blind was a consideration of the problems being experienced by blind air travelers. Much of the session on Wednesday morning, July 3, was taken up with this issue. The first two presentations were made by Peggy Pinder and Marc Maurer. Then, Jeffrey Shane, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy and International Affairs of the Federal Department of Transportation, spoke.
In his introduction of Mr. Shane, President Jernigan said:
"After last year's convention I met with Mr. Shane and certain others. We had, I think, a constructive and good conversation. Mr. Murdock of the Federal Aviation Administration, who was at our convention last year, sat in on part of that meeting. When I undertook to discuss with him what had been videotaped and was clearly a part of the record, his behavior can only be described as that of a spoiled child. He threw a temper tantrum and walked out of the meeting. I think this demonstrates some of the problems we face with the federal government. There were two airline representatives at that meeting, one from United and one from American. Each of them told me later that they regarded the presentation which I made as reasonable and that they felt that there were problems that needed to be addressed--and these were the offending parties. I think that his behavior demonstrates the problems we sometimes have with officials who regulate. However, I must say that Mr. Shane, in that conversation, was reasonable, listened, and engaged in the give and take of discussion."
In his remarks Mr. Shane continued the theme which Mr. Murdock of the FAA had begun at the NFB Phoenix convention in 1984--that the FAA was sort of an innocent bystander, hoping to broker peace and good will between the airlines and the Federation. Hard as it may seem to do, he tried to make a virtue of the fact that the Department of Transportation has not made (and seemingly refuses to make) rules to prohibit discrimination against the blind. It will be observed that he actually details and admits inconsistencies on the part of the airlines in their treatment of the blind but that he has nothing better to offer than a pious request that we be patient and not "take it out" on the poor "benighted" lower level airline personnel. There is also a tone which runs through his remarks that our problems must be viewed almost as if they were a matter of fate instead of something which reasonable people can hope to deal with.
Illustrative of this attitude is the following statement by Mr. Shane: "Looking back to 1977, DOT, through the Federal Aviation Administration, issued regulations requiring air carriers to file their procedures for transporting handicapped individuals. The procedures were to relate to the transportation of blind passengers as well. The FAA does not render a determination on the adequacy of particular procedures--their formulation is the prerogative of the carriers."
Of course, one could put the matter another way. Looking back to 1977, DOT, through the Federal Aviation Administration, ducked its responsibility and said that the air carriers could do as they pleased. All that was required was that they go through the formality of writing it down and submitting a copy to the FAA. Mr. Shane says that the FAA does not "render a determination on the adequacy of particular procedures." This is exactly what we are complaining about. Why does it not do so? It is not a matter of divine edict or predestination.
It will also be observed that Mr. Shane attempts to make something positive out of the fact that, as he puts it, "requirements for uniformity were not included in the FAA regulations."
"Well," one is tempted to say in exasperation, "Why not?"
Mr. Shane's lame answer that "individual airlines can best determine their reeds for safe carriage, or even the feasibility of carriage, given considerations of aircraft type, airport facilities, connecting routes, flight length, and related factors" simply will not do. That is somewhat like saying that the federal government will not interfere if blacks are forced to sit at the back of the bus since individual bus companies can best determine their needs for safe carriage, or even the feasibility of carriage, given considerations of bus type, bus station facilities, connecting routes, trip length, and related factors. This is not the 1800's. No one would buy such arguments, and the blind won't buy them either.
Mr. Shane's proposed solution for it all was simply more of the same. He proposed that the Federation accept membership on the Transportation Facilitation Committee, recently established by the federal Department of Transportation. He said that the rule- making procedure was bureaucratic and complicated and that DOT's Transportation Facilitation Committee was different. He then modestly added that, "Perhaps because it is 'different,' it has been misunderstood or, worse, not understood at all."
The problem is that it is not "different." It is the same tired old thinking we have been facing since the beginning of time. It presupposes that the blind have such special problems and needs in traveling that they cannot merely go to an airport, buy their tickets, and travel like anybody else. The notion is that the blind have special problems in travel and that the airlines and the Department of Transportation should be patted on the back for being willing to consider those problems, when all we really want and need is to be left alone to travel in peace. In connection with his Transportation Facilitation Committee Mr. Shane said, "The Department will encourage the same sort of focus on air travel problems experienced by the blind and visually impaired." To which we say: Thanks--but no, thanks. We feel the same way about Mr. Shane's talk about our "unique needs." But let Mr. Shane speak for himself. Here is what he had to say:
REMARKS BY JEFFREY N. SHANE
It is an enormous privilege to be able to join you at this impressive gathering, and to bring you the greetings and good wishes of the Secretary of Transportation, Elizabeth Dole. I understand that there are representatives in attendance from every state, the District of Columbia, and several foreign countries, making this the largest gathering of the blind and visually impaired to meet this year. I congratulate you on the breadth of this participation, and on what it reflects in terms of the significance of this meeting.
Your convention, I am told, is the principal occasion for the policy-making by the National Federation of the Blind. As such, I'm sure that this has been a busy few days. For that reason, I appreciate all the more being given this opportunity to discuss the policies of the Department of Transportation as they relate to many of the matters you have been considering.
It is no secret that a great many here today have expressed some dissatisfaction with DOT in regard to our efforts to foster improved transportation services for blind people and others with disabilities. I hope I can present some evidence that our critics are, perhaps, a bit harsh in their judgments and that there is much, in fact, that we have to offer.
First, looking back to 1977, DOT, through the Federal Aviation Administration, issued regulations requiring air carriers to file their procedures for transporting handicapped individuals. The procedures were to relate to the transportation of blind passengers as well. The FAA does not render a determination on the adequacy of particular procedures--their formulation is the prerogative of the carriers."
We are sensitive to your concerns that serious weaknesses exist in this filing process. For one, different airlines have different procedures. Compounding this problem, the same airline may have different sets of procedures for different types of aircraft and, further, even identical procedures are interpreted in different ways by different employees of a single airline. Not a prescription for predictability and charity. Finally, questions have been raised about the possibility that the procedures are inherently discriminatory.
Some of the difficulty is undoubtedly attributable to the federal government. Certainly, requirements for uniformity were not included in the FAA regulations. But that was intentional. It was felt that individual airlines could best determine their needs for safe carriage, or even the feasibility of carriage, given considerations of aircraft type, airport facilities, connecting routes, flight, length, and related factors.
TRANSPORTATION FACILITATION COMMITTEE (TFC)
Now, in the past, whenever problems surfaced that might require government attention--problems like those associated with these procedures--the government's reflex was to develop a new proposed rule and begin again the long, drawn-out, bureaucratic process of soliciting comments, getting counter comments and, finally, coming up with something that looked very much like a lowest common denominator. It is our view that all too often the rulemaking avenue is ineffective, complicated, and singularly impersonal.
That's why we have adopted a different approach. Perhaps because it is "different," it has been misunderstood or, worse, not understood at all. Not surprisingly, communications between us have not been what they should be. That fact is a source of genuine concern within my Department, and so I want very much to clarify DOT's course of action, the Department's objectives, and the reasons why it is so important that we work more closely together.
In an effort to steer away from the bureaucratic style of rulemaking as the primary means of responding to problems involving the blind, we established a subgroup of the Transportation Facilitation Committee to foster people-to-people contact.
First, let met tell you about the Transportation Facilitation Committee. Chaired by DOT, it is made up of some thirty government and transportation industry organizations. This structure is designed to bring together experts so that transportation facilitation problems can be studied and remedied on a voluntary basis. The Committee is working on issues like pre-clearance of passengers and baggage in foreign ports to quicken the international movement of travelers and cargo. Committee attention is also focused on improving the consistency of inspection clearance policies.
The special subgroup is composed of representatives from the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board, other government agencies, the aviation industry, manufacturers of assistive devices, and organizations serving persons with disabilities. The subgroup is considering, among other things, questions related to the accessibility of air transportation by the deaf and those in wheelchairs. The Department will encourage the same sort of focus on air travel problems experienced by the blind and visually impaired. To date, however, no organization of or for the blind has been represented on this subgroup. I would like to take this opportunity, therefore, to invite the NFB to participate in this practical problem-solving process.
Improved services for the blind are likely to be a matter of educating airport and air carrier personnel to the fact that, in the vast majority of cases, the blind passenger ought not to be considered "disabled" at all.
In that regard, just this past April World Airways and members of the NFB cooperated to demonstrate an emergency evacuation of blind people from an aircraft. This is the type of cooperation that we at the Department of Transportation want to promote throughout the industry, not just with the blind but with other interest groups as well. And because of cooperative efforts like yours there is a widening effort within the aviation industry to improve significantly this accommodation of those with disabilities. World Airways offers special services to persons with disabilities through its toll free reservation number and has also printed in-flight briefing booklets in Braille. World is also in the process of developing a manual to help its employees better relate to persons with disabilities. It is my understanding that some of you commented on that manual in its draft form.
Piedmont Airlines has joined World in responding to the unique needs of blind persons. Also, United and American Airlines have had talks with Mr. Gashel and Dr. Jernigan on how they can better serve blind passengers. This one-on-one approach, we believe, should be the principal focus in the quest for a better, more relevant system.
We would also like to express our appreciation to the Society for the Advancement of Travel for the Handicapped for its efforts in improving communications between air carriers and advocacy organizations like the NFB. These are the types of activities that put people in the important personal contact I referred to earlier. From this, mutual respect and personal relationships develop that no strictly regulatory approach could ever achieve.
AIR TRAVEL SERVICES
Other topics you currently have under discussion with the carriers include: The seating of blind passengers near emergency exits; the carriage of deaf or blind persons who are unaccompanied; and the general attitude of airline personnel toward the visually impaired.
As to the third issue, some of your literature refers to situations where airline personnel have made erroneous assumptions about the condition of blind persons, often leading to embarrassing situations. I refer to instances when, for example, carriers have required blind persons, and others with disabilities, to sit on blankets. In this case, you point out that airlines, feeling the pressure of current regulations, believe that they must adopt these types of restrictions even though there may be no rational basis for them.
As a result, the Federation has expressed a desire to have the airlines remove from their special procedures all requirements relating to the blind. You would have air carriers not consider the blind as handicapped for the purposes of air travel.
In that connection I want to emphasize that DOT's objectives closely coincide with those of the Federation. The Department wants to extricate itself and the public from the morass of the regulatory process, and you believe your needs would be better served without any misguided attention. Our paths are not divergent at all.
It is my belief that the processes set up through the Transportation Facilitation Committee and your own carefully cultivated relationships with the transportation industry will lead us to the goal we all share: people treating each other with sensitivity, respect, and understanding.
SECTION 504 REGULATION
While we at the Department of Transportation do believe that the most effective means of meeting the transportation needs of blind travelers will come with less red tape and improved channels of communication, I can assure you that DOT is not operating in a "never-never land." We realize that good things don't come to pass simply because they are good. Consequently, the Department will come down on the side of regulation when there is no realistic alternative. We have, in fact, done so in recent cases affecting your interests.
Consider the Department's regulation implementing Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. As you may know, our rule contains language requiring that transportation terminals be accessible to the disabled and, in this regard, it includes several provisions governing airport accommodations for the blind and visually impaired. Among these are requirements relating to: the admission of dog guides; access to flight information; and facilities for providing information orally.
We are reviewing our Section 504 regulations, and this process may result in a notice of proposed rulemaking setting forth revisions in the rules. If so, the Department urges the NFB to review carefully and comment on the document. I don't have to tell you how critical your review will be to the formulation of a final rule.
I would like to call your attention to yet another aspect of the 504 issue. In 1982 the Civil Aeronautics Board also issued a regulation implementing this section of the Rehabilitation Act. With the abolition of the the CAB in January, DOT inherited that regulation, one that has developed a somewhat controversial history.
The rule contains general nondiscrimination language applying to all airlines and air charter operations. It also includes more specific nondiscrimination and enforcement requirements that apply only to those carriers receiving financial assistance from the federal government.
Advocacy groups sued the Board, arguing that all should be subject to all portions of the regulation. Last January 18, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit decided, in a case called Paralyzed Veterans of America VV. Civil Aeronautics Board, that the Department of Transportation, as the CAB's successor, must "Redraft the rules to the extent necessary to apply them to all commercial carriers." The Administration is examining the legal basis for the decision and is currently in the process of deciding whether to seek certiorari in the Supreme Court. The narrow issue is whether the decision in the PVA case is consistent with other 504 decisions and whether an extension of the rationale in PVA to other situations might create unintended problems.
As a matter of policy, DOT is exploring a variety of legal theories to determine whether they furnish a sound legal foundation for broader coverage of the airline industry, and we are doing so in close consultation with our colleagues in other agencies. As of this moment, I am unable to report that the Administration has reached a final consensus on the issue. What I do want you to know, however, is that we are trying to think about it creatively, and that we are doing so in ways that you would support.
As I stated at the outset, the Department of Transportation and the National Federation of the Blind have not always appeared to be in lock-step in the march toward a transportation system fully responsible to the needs and desires of blind travelers. I hope that I can leave you with the sense that our goals do not run in opposite directions.
If you believe that the Department of Transportation has not been aggressive in the rulemaking arena, you are right. But that should not lead to any false conclusions. We feel there are more effective methods of responding to the needs of blind travelers. It is always easy to pretend to address a problem by issuing a notice or developing a new rule. Too often, however, we have discovered that problems were merely dismissed in this manner, not resolved.
This Administration has devised policies to have people talking to people. It is time for understandings to be reached between providers and users. Only in this way can needs be explained and understood on a human level. I can commit to you, on behalf of Secretary Dole, that DOT will do all that it can to broker effective problem-solving sessions between your members and the airline industry, and we will do so until we are satisfied that the issues have been properly addressed.
We ask only that you join us in bringing to those conversations a spirit of good will and friendship. You should, because you will be among friends. Don't give up on the airlines because of an unpleasant encounter with a beleaguered ticket agent or an uninformed cabin attendant. Don't blame the benighted airline employee for being inflexible when his or her next pay raise is likely to depend upon his or her ability to "go by the book." Your energy and indignation are wasted on the rank and file. What we have to do is find the guy who wrote the book. Then we'll begin to make progress.
I don't want to suggest that the problems aren't serious, they are. Give us, however, the opportunity to work with you. It may well be that the problems aren't nearly as intractable as they seem. Thank you.
After Mr. Shane's remarks, President Jernigan said: "Mr. Shane, what we want is really quite simple. We want to be left alone to travel in peace on the airlines and not have any rules affecting us that don't apply to other passengers."
The next presentation was made by Mr. Mark Warinner, Manager of Procedures, Training, and Facilitation, Frontier Airlines.
REMARKS BY MARK WARINNER
Air Travel and the Blind: Safety, Civil Rights, and Public Policy. I read in the newspaper, and I take a look at that and I am reminded of an oxymoron. I don't know how many of you know what that is. Those are words that are used together, but when you think about them, they're totally ridiculous. For example, military intelligence, bureaucratic efficiency, dependable computers.
How about the airlines? Airline meals? Scheduled departures? And on your level--friendly skies? Maybe People's Express. Why so unfriendly? Why so at odds with your goals? Why is it so tough for the blind to be integrated with the rest of society of air travelers on an equal basis? Why the 14 CFR section? Why the inclusion there? Why all the restrictive procedures in passenger handling? Are all these things the result of public policy?
Well, according to Black's Law Dictionary, public policy is the community common sense and common conscience extended and applied throughout the state to matters of public morals, public health, public safety, public welfare, and the like. It is that general and well settled public opinion relating to man's plain duty to his fellowman, having due regard to all the circumstances of each particular relation and situation. Is there any proof of common sense or common conscience problems with acceptance of the blind on an equal basis with all others? It wouldn't appear to be so. In fact, it would seem to be just the opposite. How about civil rights problems? Civil rights are such as belong to every citizen (that's every citizen) of the state or country--to, in a wider sense, all of its inhabitants; and are not connected with the organization or administration of government. They include rights of property, marriage, protection of the laws, freedom of contract, trial by jury, and so forth. Again, there doesn't seem to be any problem there for what amounts to discrimination.
What about safety problems? It's interesting to note that there's no definition of safety in the Federal Aviation Act. Although safety is included as one of the elements, the actual regulation of safety is vested in the administrator, but it's never defined. With regard to the declaration of policy of the board (which was the CAB and now the DOT) they have to act in the public interest in accordance with public convenience and necessity. First, the assignment and maintenance of safety is the highest priority in air commerce. Second, the prevention of any deterioration in established safety procedures. Further on down, the development and maintenance of a sound regulatory environment, which is responsive to the needs of the public. The policy of the administrator is: regulation of air commerce in such a manner as to best promote its development and safety, control of the use of the navigable air space of the United States, and the regulation of both civil and military operations of such air space in the interest of the safety and efficiency of both. Safety is mentioned over and over and over. And I think that issue (with no basis in fact as was very ably pointed out earlier) has never been tested sufficiently and is the excuse that amounts to discrimination.
How do the procedures work? It was pointed out. They're written by people like me--and I happen to be the one that continues to write procedures at Frontier. They're submitted to the FAA for approval, and in most cases I would agree it's more or less a rubber-stamp process. However, the FAA does make some decisions in that regard. I'll point one of those out in a moment. They don't have to give their approval. Once airline procedures are approved, then they are enforceable by the FAA; so you kind of write your own rules, and then you're forced to follow them. What's the problem? Frontier doesn't know. We're certainly not perfect, but I'll read you what our current policies are.
First off, there's a definition for incapacitated persons, and then it says, "except blind or deaf persons." So, blind or deaf are not included in that. We refer to the chapter. It says blind and/or deaf persons. Any blind and/or deaf person in otherwise good health shall be accepted for passage and is not considered handicapped. A blind and/or deaf person accompanied by a dog guide or a hearing dog may be permitted to carry the dog with him/her in the cabin of the aircraft at no extra charge. Blind and/or deaf passengers, including their dog guide or hearing dog, may be seated anywhere they desire--except at the emergency exit windows, which restrict two seats on one of our airplanes and four seats on the other. We've asked the FAA for a change in that procedure (to permit blind persons to sit in those seats). It has not yet been approved, and their argument back to us is the one that was put forward that the sighted person can see whether or not there's fire and smoke outside that window. I might point out that we're reconfiguring our fleet of Boeing 737's, and the emergency exit window seat is being totally blocked, it's not occupied by anyone. At that point in time there will be no need to change our regulations. In addition to stowing in closets or carry-on bins, travel canes carried by blind individuals may be stowed: one, under any series of connected passenger seats in the same row; two, between a non-emergency exit window seat and the fuselage; three, beneath any two non-emergency exit window seats if the cane is flat on the floor. It goes on to say all possible assistance shall be rendered to blind or deaf passengers--if asked by the passenger. Further down it says: "If desired by the passenger, early board, and identify passenger to flight attendant." That is--if desired by the passenger. So what are the problems? Frankly, at Frontier we don't know. But I will say we're not perfect. Our people do make mistakes, and if we do, I in particular want to know about them because I work with the directors who take care of enforcement action.
At the Phoenix meeting last year we followed up with discussions with one of our line personnel (Susan Lee) and made some changes in our policies--and took action against a couple of people who treated some of you rudely. We support the Federation's efforts, and currently our video people are working with some videotapes which were prepared with Dr. Jernigan. We're going to be using those on the recurrent training of our individuals. I would just in closing say that until the rules are the same everywhere, they'll only lead to confusion. And Frontier, which has one of the best safety records in the sky, doesn't seem to understand the problem; and some of the other carriers with, I might point out, worse safety records seem to have a bigger problem.
And the last thing I'd like to say is that Frontier has had very few tire failures for a number of years. In fact, we've had no tire failures on our recaps. The only failures we've had have been on new tires from factories. And the person who inspects those tires, for which we've never had a failure, happens to be blind.
The next person to speak following Mr. Warinner was W. James Host, Executive Vice President of the National Tour Association.
REMARKS BY W. JAMES HOST
I am pleased and honored to be with you here today to discuss some of the problems of blind travelers and some solutions that we feel that we have to those problems. Quite simply, the National Tour Association is the major national trade association for tour operators and their suppliers in the United States and North America. The National Tour Association has 470 tour operators, who sell through the better than 21,000 travel agents that exist here in the United States. We also have 2,800 different tour supplier members. We are the only organization, for example, that has every state as a
member, every major city as a member, every major airline, every hotel chain, every restaurant chain, every attraction chain, etc. And we are here today to tell you that we want to work with you to bring about what you want to achieve for the travel industry. For your information, and I'm sure you already realize this, the travel and tourism industry is the fastest growing retail industry in the United States--employing more than 6.8 million people, generating more than two hundred billion dollars annually, and by year 2,000 will be the biggest industry in the world. And anybody who says that they don't need your business is crazy.
I don't propose today to tell you what's best for your members, only what I think you might be able to do as a collective voice of the blind of this country. To put it mildly, for the last few years I'm aware that you haven't hidden your concerns about the rights of blind travelers under a basket. Your organization has picketed airports, filed lawsuits, and engaged in considerable negotiations with airlines--beginning with your concerns about keeping your canes with you while traveling on airplanes in 1978. And your efforts have received considerable national press coverage. The National Federation of the Blind has made the concerns of blind travelers an important issue, which must be resolved by working with and negotiating with our travel and tourism industry.
Your Director of Governmental Affairs, Mr. James Gashel, eloquently testified about the concerns of blind travelers before the House and Senate hearings which the National Tour Association, the Society for the Advancement of Travel for the Handicapped, and the National Federation of the Blind put together as a positive way of illustrating to the Senate and the House that there was an economic advantage to the blind traveling and that the blind did want to travel, and they wanted to be treated like everybody else. We think (the National Tour Association believes) that there is an enormous untapped market of blind or otherwise handicapped travelers. The fact of the matter (and the thing that came out in the hearing which was staggering to me) is that less than ten percent of you actually travel because you don't know what access you really have to hotels and to all various forms of travel in the country. And when we made that statistical fact known, if indeed we were able to just publish material that would outline to you the access that you have (facilities that already have been built that can accommodate you), we would do a great deal toward turning around the economy in this country.
The National Tour Association would like to have, Dr. Jernigan, a closer working relationship with you and with the National Federation of the Blind. And I will be in contact with you to discuss ways in which we can work cooperatively together to improve the traveling and tourism market for blind travelers and for the industry as a whole. Finally, I want to assure you of the genuine interest that our industry has in seeing to it that blind travelers are treated on a basis of equality. If a blind person wants help while traveling, he or she should be given it correctly and with dignity. If a blind traveler doesn't need assistance, then it shouldn't be given, and the blind traveler should be able to travel without hindrance. And our tour operators are dedicated to that effort. This conversation serves as a model in demonstrating that blind persons really do represent a genuine market for the travel and tourism industry. In summary, we want your business. Let's work together to find ways to effectively build it, not on the basis of charity and discount but on the basis of equality and dignity.
The next to speak was Judy Sanders, Federationist from Minnesota. She said:
REMARKS BY JUDY SANDERS
On November 11 it was my intention to return from Boston home to Minneapolis from our meeting with the Standards and Accreditation Committee of the National Federation of the Blind. I was prevented from doing so by the crew of People Express Airlines and by some employees of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. They were police officers, and as a result of that, I was arrested and charged with being a disorderly person. (That's how they saw it.) Those charges also resulted in a great deal of publicity, so I think it is not necessary for me to go through the details of what happened--except to say that People Express had to come up with a response to all of it, because, of course, everyone wanted to talk to them and say why was this done? What they began to say was that they were "set up"--that it was done intentionally so that we could raise the issue and solve this problem. The only ones who "set it up" were the employees of People Express. And they did so by making their rules and deciding that that would be the day they would choose to enforce them. Furthermore, all I did was choose my seat along with the other passengers.
The only difference was: A flight attendant followed me to my seat, watched me take it, and went away. And it was after that that they decided I should move. The one thing that many people may not know is that last Thursday we went to court to have a hearing to decide what to do. At that time the judge dismissed the charges against me, so that I'm no longer a potentially "disorderly person. " What action we will take against People Express has yet to be determined--but we will do something.
There is, I think, some good in everything that happens to us. For me it is to find out how many friends I have. Two days after I was arrested and had to appear in court, not only was I, of course, given legal support through the National Federation of the Blind, but many Federationists appeared in the courtroom that day to show their support for what was happening. And they were there again last Thursday. I also have heard from many of you over the past few months. You were curious because you wanted to know what has happened to me and (I would hope) because you want to know what would happen to you one of these days. For that I want to say thank you and for whatever happens, it will happen to all of us. And that's why there is a National Federation of the Blind.
The next to speak was Russell Anderson, Federation member from Indiana. He said:
REMARKS BY RUSSELL ANDERSON
On Wednesday, February 6, I finished up the March on Washington and went to National Airport. Just like everyone else, I had my ticket along with me, and I went to the main ticket counter to get my seat assignment. And then, just like everyone else, I boarded the airplane and took my assigned seat. Just like anyone else. That assigned seat, however, was in the emergency exit row. And, I might add, the assignment of the seat was made by U.S. Air personnel. After I sat in that seat, a flight attendant immediately came to me and told me that I could not sit there. He insisted that there were FAA regulations which required that blind people cannot sit in emergency exit rows. I told him that I did not believe that such an FAA regulation existed, and he continued to insist that it did. I knew that it was a lie, and I stuck to my guns. Next, there was a long line of U.S. Air personnel (in increasing order of rank) right up to the Terminal Manager. They all tried to reason with me, and throughout this delay other passengers on the plane became more and more unhappy with what they perceived as my unreasonable behavior. I told passengers who cared to listen that I also regretted the long delay in our departure. I wanted to get home the same as they did.
After an hour went by the airport Terminal Manager said to me that if I would not leave that seat, he would have me arrested. I told him that the choice was his and that I would not move. Finally, he called the FAA police, and the Washington national office of the FAA police sent officers to arrest me. They came onto the plane, and one officer tried to remove me forcibly. I asked if I had been arrested. He said that I had not. I told him that his grabbing my arm and trying to pull me from my seat would most likely be considered a battery for which I could receive some sort of judgment in a court. At that point the officer's supervisor, a sergeant, came forward and said, "You are under arrest."
At that time I went with the officers (willingly) to their office. My rights were read to me, and I waited while the officers from the FAA police spent thirty minutes going through manuals and FAA regulation books, looking at every statement they could find. Then they admitted to me that they could find nothing to charge me with, except possibly, hijacking, and they did not think that was practical.
When they had exhausted their own resources, they called the U.S. Attorney's Office, which immediately advised them to terminate the arrest and release me. And I'd like to add on behalf of those FAA police officers that they could not have been more polite or more courteous to me.
After I was released, I returned to the National Center for the Blind in Baltimore. On Thursday night I, along with fifty of my friends from the Federation, went back to National Airport and we had a demonstration. We attempted to get me on the next flight home. That did not work out. And on the following day (Saturday, February 8) we filed a class action suit on behalf of all able-bodied blind people in this country who use commercial airlines.
That is U.S. Air. Now, we have completed the preliminary stages of that lawsuit, and hopefully we will reach some resolution very soon.
After these presentations there was discussion. President Jernigan began by saying:
"Mr. Shane, you said in your presentation that FAA had deliberately tried (and that the Department of Transportation had deliberately tried) to avoid making regulations and rules, and wanted to leave the matter to the air carriers and the blind. That sounds good. However, Frontier says, in the person of Mr. Warinner, that it submitted to you a regulation (a proposed regulation) saying that blind persons may sit wherever they please, and that you people in the Department of Transportation dragged your heels. He didn't exactly say that you forbade them to do it, but he very nearly said that. I want to know: Which way is it? That is, is the Department of Transportation prepared to leave it to us and the airlines, or are you really prepared (behind the scenes) to pressure the airlines into refusing to let us sit in the exit rows, and then to say to us publicly that you're not prepared to make regulations? Talk to me about it."
Mr. Shane: "Yes, when Mark Warinner mentioned that the FAA had, in fact, questioned whether or not Frontier would be allowed to put blind passengers at window seats, I made a note to myself to ask the FAA why they were questioning that. I honestly don't know. My understanding is that, in fact, the prerogative does rest with the airlines--that the FAA does, in fact, rubber stamp the regulations if they seem reasonable, and there is a wide variety of regulations that the FAA is prepared to stamp as reasonable. And I'd just have to go further into it."
President Jernigan: "Okay, but you'll check it out?"
Mr. Shane: "Precisely."
President Jernigan: "All right. You will, without being prodded further, give us an answer on it, will you?"
Mr. Shane: "Oh, yes."
This is the exact exchange of conversation which took place between President Jernigan and Mr. Shane. The conversation occurred on July 3, 1985. This article is being written August 20, 1985, and Mr. Shane has not (at least, to the present) kept his word. In view of the history of his department this is not surprising. In fact, it is to be expected. Perhaps when he reads this, he will join his colleague Mr. Murdock in throwing a temper tantrum. This would give him an excuse to try to divert attention from the issues and to pretend that he could not discuss the matter further. The record of the federal Department of Transportation with respect to the airline problem we have faced is disgustingly shabby.
But back to the exchange at the convention. President Jernigan said: "Mr. Shane, we are told that we can't sit in emergency exit rows because of a safety factor. You know this is true. Liquor is sold without any restraint to people in those exit rows, and that's a much more likely cause of blockage of those rows (if a person gets too much to drink) than blindness. We've talked about possible smoke inside the plane. The only time that we know of that any kind of problem occurred with smoke was when a sighted person opened the exit window. Now, I want to raise with you this question: In 1980 statistics were gathered and provided to us by the U.S. Department of Transportation (your department). They show deaths per ten billion passenger miles for various modes of transportation. For taxis there were 133 deaths per ten million passenger miles. Yet, there are no regulations telling us where we can sit in taxis; and most people would regard such regulations as foolishness. For trains it is four people (not blind people, but just people) who get killed every ten billion passenger miles. Again, there are no regulations telling us where we can sit. Your department tells us that for every ten billion passenger miles on the airplanes, one person gets killed. Now, when we balance off the safety record of a possible one person for every ten billion passenger miles, and when there is no evidence that blind people are more of a safety problem than others, and when you have the ongoing hassle with blind people that occurs when we are abused, arrested, and sometimes injured physically on planes, why on earth doesn't the Department of Transportation initiate a rule that says that we will be left alone until you have some evidence that we are more of a risk than other people? Or else, why don't you make regulations restricting us on trains! Isn't that reasonable?"
Mr. Shane's response was of the same caliber as the rest of his reasoning. He began by saying this:
"Well, there are no emergency exits on trains, so the occasion to propose a rule of that kind that we have on airlines wouldn't obtain. There are only two ways to get out of a back seat of a taxicab, and it's hard to restrict access to those exits."
That is what he said, and one is forced to wonder at the logic. Whether there is "an emergency exit" depends on whether it is called an "emergency exit." In case of an emergency, it would certainly be "an emergency exit," and the fact that a train has only two exits instead of a half dozen or more would seem to make the two even more important. If blind people might block the aisles of airplanes in time of emergency, might they not do the same with trains? They could be required to sit next to the window and never in an aisle seat. This would keep them out of the way while sighted people saved themselves in time of emergency. Presumably they could be comforted by the promise that train personnel would come and get them when everybody else was out--unless, of course, they remembered that time is of the essence in such emergencies and that the first ones off are the ones who survive; or unless they remembered the incident of the airplane crash in Spain when flight personnel panicked and beat everybody else in the rush to get out.
And what about that business about there being only two ways out of the back seat of a taxi? Surely the blind person could be required to sit in the middle of the seat so that sighted passengers on either side would not be blocked in case of emergency and would have the first crack at getting out.
Ridiculous? Of course it is ridiculous--but so is the entire scenario of the airline insanity. Can any person in his or her right mind really believe that we are dealing with a matter of safety?
Mr. Shane concluded his response to the question by saying this: "Is it in fact sensible to restrict the access to emergency exit rows on airlines? I frankly do not know. I do know that the airline personnel who have drafted rules for some airlines say so. They honestly believe right now that there is a purpose to that regulation. I had the occasion, as I was flying here last night, to sit down with a cabin attendant on Eastern Airlines. I was flying to Atlanta unfortunately, because that's the only way to get to Louisville from Washington--by Atlanta if you leave after 8:00. I asked her--simply because I had a lot of free time on that flight--how were cabin attendants trained to deal with blind passengers on Eastern. She immediately told me that, of course, a blind passenger is always expected to sit at a bulkhead seat because there is more room for the dog guide at a bulkhead seat. I said: 'Well, are you aware that blind passengers have a very different view of that?' She said, 'No, I'm not.'
"I said, 'What about emergency row exits?'
"She said, 'Well, we always like to have a large, able-bodied man sitting at the window seat, because he has to open the door. And then I always want three people in that row who can handle the whole business of evacuating the plane. One is going to handle the slide; one is going to handle the door and stand on the wing just outside and help people out; and the third one will do something else.'
"In other words there's this whole procedure that Eastern has developed to maximize the prospects of everybody on that airplane getting out. Now, I'm not suggesting that that's right. I can't begin to evaluate that. I am not an expert on airline safety. What I am saying is that Eastern sincerely believes that this is a sensible procedure. They have been in the business for a long time. They have to be shown (along the lines of the World Airways experiment in April) that their assumptions are incorrect. We need more of those demonstrations. I'm sorry that they are not starting from the assumption that blind passengers are like everybody else and that it has to be proven to them. But that is a fact of life. People do have strange assumptions about what blind passengers can and cannot do on airplanes, and we have to sit down and work with the airlines and demonstrate that those assumptions are incorrect when they are. And that is the only way we're ever going to achieve the objectives that we're striving for. A regulation will not do the trick."
President Jernigan: "Eastern simply does not do what you tell me they say they do. You know, you can't just shrug and say: 'That's too bad' - or 'she (the flight attendant) told me' - or 'it's just fate.' It's not fate, and we're not prepared to put up with it forever. Look here! I've flown on Eastern flights. They simply do not select people and but a big, healthy, able bodied man in the window seat. It just doesn't happen. And I tell you furthermore that you can go on that Eastern flight and let that big, healthy, able bodied man or (for that matter) that frail, tiny woman, sit in the exit seat; and they will give you liquor on that plane until you drink yourself into insensibility. You know that. And it won 't do to say: 'Well, they aren't supposed to.' They do--whether they're supposed to or not!"
Mr. Shane: "She was telling me her own personal preference."
President Jernigan: "I don't care what her personal preference is. You began by saying, as I understood it, that that's what Eastern does."
Mr. Shane: "No, you misunderstood."
After this exchange there was a good deal of give and take between Mr. Shane and members of the Federation. Most of it was of the same general character as that which has already been described. Toward the end, an exchange between Mr. Shane and John Halverson, President of the National Federation of the Blind of the District of Columbia, summed things up about as well as anything could.
Mr. Halverson: "In 1974 the FAA developed a proposed rule-making on the carriage of the handicapped by airlines. According to this, blind persons would not be allowed to sit in the exit row seats. There was a great hue and cry against this, and the proposed rulemaking was withdrawn. In 1977 a regulation was promulgated (14 CFR 121.586) which says that airlines can make their own rules for carriage of the handicapped. At about the same time an advisory circular (120-32) was promulgated. This advisory circular, which does not have the force of law, said that blind people should be seated near floor level exits. Airlines use this advisory circular when they talk about where we should or should not be seated. This has no force in law. Right now the FAA has no rule, no law, no regulation that says it's illegal for us to sit in the exit rows. Can you, Mr. Shane, explain to this Federation what evidence, what real evidence, can be cited to show that we should not be sitting in exit rows?"
Mr. Shane: "No."