Braille Monitor December 1985
Recently Gary Mackenstadt, President of the National Federation of the Blind of Washington, attended a seminar at the National Center for the Blind in Baltimore. His wife Denise also attended the seminar. As the Mackenstadts were returning home to Seattle, Gary was arrested in Chicago for refusing to move from the seat which airline personnel had assigned him.
Later, a spokesman for American claimed that the incident had been deliberately staged by the Federation to provoke confrontation. This is not the truth. After he was arrested, Gary contacted the National Office of the Federation. In her capacity as an attorney Peggy Pinder asked to speak with the American Airlines official who had apparently caused the arrest and with whom Gary was dealing. The official refused to speak with Peggy. After returning home Gary sent a memorandum detailing the circumstances of his arrest:
TO: Peggy Pinder
FROM: Gary Mackenstadt
DATE: September 3, 1985
SUBJECT: Narrative Statement Regarding Emergency Exit Row Incident on American Airlines Flight 391 from Chicago to Seattle on September 1, 1985
The purpose of this memorandum is to describe the incident which took place as a result of my seat assignment in the emergency exit row on American Airlines flight 391 from Chicago to Seattle on Sunday, September 1, 1985.
My wife, Denise, and I had been attending meetings of the National Federation of the Blind in Baltimore, Maryland, between August 29 and September 1, 1985. On Sunday, September 1, we departed Baltimore for Seattle with a transfer of planes in Chicago. Our flight from Baltimore to Chicago was uneventful.
In Chicago we transferred to American Airlines flight 391, which was a direct flight from Chicago to Seattle. The scheduled departure was 3:00 p.m. Our seat assignments for flight 391 were 18A and 18-B, which we had obtained over the telephone with American Airlines the previous week. When our row was called for boarding, we boarded the plane, only to discover that we had been assigned to the emergency exit row. I sat in 18-A, while Denise sat in 18-B. We boarded the plane at 2:45 p.m.
At approximately 2:45 p.m. a flight attendant approached me to request that I move out of the emergency exit row. She stated that FAA regulations prohibited handicapped persons from sitting in emergency exit rows. I responded that there was no such FAA regulation and that I had no intention of moving from the emergency exit row. She stated that she had a blind boyfriend and that she thought that blind persons should be allowed to sit in the emergency exit row. She then went away.
A few minutes later the same flight attendant returned, stating that it was company policy which prohibited blind persons from sitting in the emergency exit row. She said that I had been correct with respect to no FAA regulation existing prohibiting blind persons from sitting in the emergency exit row. I told her that the company policy was discriminatory on the basis of blindness and that I would not move from the seat which American Airlines had assigned to me. The flight attendant was extremely apologetic. I explained to the flight attendant that the company policy violated my civil rights. I drew an analogy between the American Airlines policy restricting the seating of blind persons and the practice in the South thirty years ago requiring blacks to sit in the back of the bus. I explained to her that my sitting in the emergency exit row was not jeopardizing the safety of the other passengers.
The flight attendant once again left, only to return shortly with an American Airlines ground supervisor. The supervisor stated that she would not release the plane for takeoff until I had moved. I told her that I had no intention of moving. I restated my position to her. I told her that I would not move to another seat, nor would I leave the plane. She stated that she would have to contact the Chicago police. I told her that I guessed that she would have to do that.
Denise informed me that the flight attendant once again apologized for what was happening. Both the flight attendant and the ground supervisor left. Shortly afterwards, Denise informed me that five Chicago policemen were coming. Three police officers remained on the jetway while two others came aboard to arrest me. Officer Klebba of the Chicago police department arrested me at approximately 3:25 p.m. The charge was disorderly conduct. I never raised my voice to any employee of American Airlines. I spoke in a conversational tone to the police and the employees of American Airlines without exception. The other passengers on the plane appeared to be indifferent. No comments were made. I walked off the plane with one police officer ahead of me and one behind me. The other three police officers were waiting at the top of the jetway. No one touched me. I was not harassed.
Denise followed me off the plane. When I was off the plane, I spoke with Bruce Wingran, Manager of Passenger Affairs for American Airlines, to ask for a copy of the company policy which precludes blind persons from sitting in the emergency exit row. He refused to give me a copy of the policy, stating that it was an internal document. Shortly thereafter, I was taken in a patrol car to the police station located in the Continental cargo building, which is near the airport. Denise accompanied me.
I was detained at the police station for a couple of hours. I never signed anything. I was not fingerprinted. The police were courteous at all times. As a matter of fact, they appeared to be supportive of my position. Bruce Wingran and another American Airlines official accompanied us to the police station, although they rode in a separate vehicle. They appeared to be extremely uptight.
I believe that the captain of flight 391 signed the complaint. However, American Airlines evidently never had any intention of pressing charges. Their primary interest was in getting me off the plane. I do not know what transpired between American Airlines and the police. I did overhear Mr. Wingran complaining about his having rights, too.
After a while (I do not know what time it was) I was informed by the police that American Airlines was not going to press charges. We left the police station at approximately 6:00 p.m. The police took us to the airport. While at the police station, I did have limited conversation with Mr. Wingran. He indicated that we would have to fly standby back to Seattle. During one of my telephone conversations with you, you asked to speak with Mr. Wingran. He refused to do so.
I was unable to secure a copy of the complaint which American Airlines filed against me. The police indicated that I would have to request a copy of the complaint in writing. I was given the address where I could write to request a copy of the complaint.
Upon returning to the airport, an American Airlines official contacted Denise and me to inform us that we had been booked on United Airlines back to Seattle. According to this American Airlines official, Denise and I would not be allowed to fly American back to Seattle.