Vigilance Still Needed Against Airline Discrimination

Blog Date: 
Friday, August 23, 2013
By Jennifer Dunnam
 
When I first joined the National Federation of the Blind more than twenty-five years ago, ending discrimination in air travel was one of our major areas of focus. Articles from the Braille Monitor in the 80s tell the stories of these problems and our largely successful efforts to solve them. Recently I experienced a situation that reminded me of our struggles from long ago, and reminded me why it is that we must remain vigilant to hold onto the gains we have made.
 
I am a blind person who travels frequently by air as part of my job.  On Tuesday, June 18, I flew on United Airlines to a work-related conference. As usual, I navigated the airport independently using my white cane, my ears, my memory, my sense of direction, and information I gained along the way by asking judicious questions of people passing by.  After boarding the plane and settling into my seat, I overheard a member of the flight crew who was preparing the cabin whisper, “Is she traveling alone?”  Soon, one of the flight attendants approached me and indicated that she needed to give me a special briefing about the aircraft.  I politely let her know that an individual briefing would be unnecessary as I fly quite often and know the ropes well.  She said that even so, she would still need to give me the briefing.  Although annoyed, I did not argue after my first attempt to dissuade her, figuring that the briefing would be finished quickly and we could all then get on with more important things.  
 
However, after talking about the exit rows and the oxygen masks, the flight attendant added an astonishing twist. Without consulting me at all, she turned to the woman next to me and asked, “Since she is traveling alone, are you willing to be designated as her assistant in case of emergency?” 
 
I could hardly believe it, but I recovered quickly to let them know that no such designation would be needed, saying something like “I will be glad to assist her as well—we’ll all be helping each other if there is an emergency.” I thought this comment might bring an end to the matter, but no—my own assessment of whether or not I needed an assistant designated for me apparently counted for nothing. The flight attendant insisted until the woman next to me consented to be so designated by saying “yes.” 
 
It was assumed that, because I am blind and she is not, the woman next to me would be more capable in an emergency than I.  There was no discussion of which of us might think most clearly in a crisis, or which might be physically stronger, or who might function better if the cabin became dark.  
 
Shortly after this incident, I had the following exchange on Twitter with a representative of United Airlines:
 
Jendunnam: Really, @United? Because I'm blind and traveling alone you ask the lady next to me to be my designated assistant in case of emergency?
Jendunnam: @United I tried joking it off, but the flight attendant pressed the point until the lady said yes.
Jendunnam: @United as an adult who travels alone frequently for business, I found this demeaning and awkward.
 
United: @Jendunnam we did not mean to offend.  For your safety this is airline policy. ^MF
 
Jendunnam: this is not good policy and not good practice RT @united: @Jendunnam we did not mean to offend.  For your safety this is airline policy. ^MF
Jendunnam: @united could you please send to me or direct me to a copy of this policy?
 
United: @Jendunnam Our goal is to ensure that our customers have a safe and comfortable travel experience. http://bit.ly/15hBudb ^FM
 
In short, the referenced policy requires a safety assistant to accompany a passenger who has severe communication or mobility limitations.  What is more, it does not indicate that a fellow passenger/complete stranger is to be recruited to serve as a safety assistant. The policy had no relevance in the situation at hand.  
 
The Twitter exchange shows that this was not merely an isolated instance of a flight attendant acting from misconceptions about blindness.  A representative of the airline, with enough standing to handle its social media communications, supported the decision to invoke the safety assistant policy, no questions asked. 
 
Despite the progress we have made, there is obviously still work to be done.  
 
Editor’s Note: Ms. Dunnam, NFB’s manager of Braille programs and the president of the NFB of Minnesota, filed a complaint with regard to the incident she describes here. In its response, United admitted that the policy referenced in its Twitter exchange with her did not apply in her situation, but defended its actions nonetheless without citing any other policy or regulation, saying in pertinent part: “All things considered, we must deny that SkyWest [United’s partner airline] Airlines was in violation of Part 382 of the [Air Carrier Access Act].  Neither did our investigation reveal that a SkyWest Airlines employee behaved in a discriminatory manner toward you based on your disability or any other reason.  Nevertheless, we apologize for any misunderstanding and regret you were offended.  Your constructive criticism has been taken to heart and will be used in future training and coaching sessions.  We continually strive to improve our service for our customers with special needs.” 
 
The National Federation of the Blind is conducting a survey regarding the experiences of its members when they travel. Please participate in this survey by visiting www.nfb.org/TravelSurvey. The NFB will continue to work to improve the travel experience of blind passengers and to fight discrimination when it occurs.