Braille Monitor August-September 1986
Dr. Slagle is a professor at the University of Minnesota. Incidentally, he is also blind. When he and Mrs. Slagle traveled from Minneapolis to Newark in February of 1986, they experienced what is coming to be routine treatment. They received conflicting statements from airline personnel, a lot of hocus-pocus about safety, a large measure of rudeness and humiliation, and a great deal of harassment. Of course, it goes without saying that Professor Slagle was treated like a child and that both he and Mrs. Slagle were "talked down" to with all of the condescension which low-level, semi-literate functionaries are wont to employ.
Upon returning to Minneapolis Mrs. Slagle wrote a letter to NFB of Minnesota President Joyce Scanlan detailing the situation. Later, Mrs. Slagle received an unhelpful and condescending letter from a People Express official. The letters speak for themselves, so here they are:
St. Paul, Minnesota
March 7, 1986
Dr. Slagle and I would like to make you aware of a problem that we encountered on People Express Airlines in which we feel that he (my husband) and I were the victims of gross discrimination because he is blind.
The facts of the situation are: On Wednesday, Februrary 26, 1986, Dr. Slagle and I boarded People Express flight #289 at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport on route to Newark. The purpose of our flight was to attend my husband's father's funeral. We were accompanied by my husband's guide dog, Ranger.
Upon entering the plane, we proceeded to settle ourselves in the first row, right hand side, since this seat has extra leg room and can easily accommojate the dog. As we were seating ourselves, our flight attendant, named Flip, told us that we could not occupy this seat because my husband was blind and the blind and other handicapped people are not allowed to sit in the front row. His stated reason was that it is too near the exit, which was one space in front of us.
We assured Flip that my husband could help with the exit door should there be an emergency, as he is a frequent flyer and well aware of what needs to be done in the event of a problem. Flip's tone of voice became authoritarian, arrogant, and angry. He placed his hand on my arm to prevent me from occupying the seat of my choice. I directed him to refrain from touching me. My husband and I sat in the seats of our choice. Flip expressed anger and left to discuss the matter with the pilot. The plane took off, and we could hear Flip and Ms. Worth, one of the other flight attendants, discussing us in unkind terms.
During the flight, at a time that did not appear to be busy, 1 attempted to discuss this matter with Flip. During our discussion Ms. Worth, who was not involved in the conversation, intruded herself in a rude manner and said that they were much too busy to discuss the matter and needed to get back to work. Her tone of voice was extremely hostile and condescending. She further said that I had been angry before I got on the flight, which was not true.
After leaving the flight, we discussed our discriminatory treatment with a customer service representative who was very helpful and assured us that we had done the right thing, that the airline (aware of recent court decisions) had changed its policy, and that we had every right to sit in the seats of our choice. I do not remember his name, but he was at Gate 5 in Newark. We felt that our problems were over and looked forward to a smoother return trip without any humiliation and demeaning treatment.
Our return flight was #288, leaving Newark for Minneapolis at 8:35 a.m. on March 1, 1986. To insure a trouble-free situation, I called the airline on Friday to explain our situation, our need for the seat in the first row to provide room for the guide dog, and our difficulties and bad treatment on the previous flight. A woman, who declined to give me her name, stating the airline rules forbade it, assured me that we would encounter no problems. She was very wrong.
Upon arriving at Gate 5 in Newark on Saturday a.m., we asked for the front row seat, explaining that we needed the extra room for the dog. Ms. Dull, the attendant at Gate 5, became angry and hostile with us and told us that we could not have that seat. She checked with others and told us that it was against the policy of People Express to allow the blind to sit in that front row seat because it is near the exit door. She offered no explanation for this rule. When I discussed with her the recent court rulings, our discussion with the customer representative on Wednesday and with the nameless telephone receptionist on Friday, she ignored us and started to seat everyone else, including standby customers. When there were only two seats left (in the second row) we were allowed to board the plane.
When passengers in the first row saw how nearly impossible it was to fit our dog and our luggage into the available space, they offered to swap wit us but were told by the flight attendant that the blind were not permitted to sit in the front row.
A pediatrician sitting beside us said that his wife was asked to move from the second row up to the front row, to be certain that all of the front row seats were filled to prevent our occupying them. The woman who was moved forward was physically handicapped and utilized a cane and moved with difficulty, yet she was allowed to sit in the first row, whereas an able bodied blind person was not.
I was very uncomfortable and cramped with the dog, and one of the flight attendants tried to be helpful by taking our luggage and putting it into the baggage section of the plane, and this was much appreciated. She was very kind but acknowledged that there was nothing she could do.
Our experience on People Express was humiliating, demeaning, and discriminatory. We were treated with hostility and arrogance by most of the flight attendants and the person at the gate (Flip, Ms. Worth, Ms. Dull). We were physically uncomfortable and the dog was also.
My husband is a full professor at the University of Minnesota and presents a professional, distinguished, and articulate appearance. Yet, he was treated as if he was helpless and not worthy of consideration. I truly fear the plight of younger, less successful appearing blind travelers and can only imagine the indignities to which they can expect to be subjected.
Our attempts to resolve this matter with the people of People Express have not been successful. Therefore, I urge the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota to publicize this situation in the hope that adverse publicity for People Express will result in humane, respectful, and nondiscriminatory treatment of all air travelers.
Frances G. Slagle
April 28, 1986
Dear Mrs. Slagle:
First of all may I apologize for the delay in responding to your letter dated March 7th, 1986, regarding your experiences while traveling on People Express Airlines, Inc.
Secondly, you are deservant of another apology for the manner in which you were treated by our representatives during your travels. I assure you that these actions are the exception and not the rule here at People Express.
I believe that the inflight manager had a valid point in requesting that you not sit in an emergency exit access row simply for safety considerations. It is our policy to request cooperation from our special need customers to refrain from sitting in an emergency exit row. In the event of an actual emergency we would want the most able and responsive persons in and around those exit rows. In fact, in an actual emergency (time permitting) you would have been directed to move from that seat or row to allow able or trained personnel to occupy that particular seat or row. In order to expedite this we try to place those with special needs in rows other than emergency exit rows, again with safety, not discrimination, as the governing concern.
In no situation, other than an emergency, should you be forced from those seats and again I apologize for the manner in which you, your husband, and your dog were treated.
In the interest of safety I would suggest that you not select those particular seats but others not in emergency exit rows which allow you the comfort that you require and deserve, and of course be considerate of our requests as we will be responsive and considerate of yours.
Daniel B. Haddix
Customer Service Manager
People Express Airlines, Inc.