Braille Monitor                                                                  December 1985


Blind Take on Airlines Seating Policy Sparks A Furor

The following article appeared October 1, 1985, in the Seattle Post Intelligencer. It was written by Post Intelligencer Reporter Alice Noble. We reprint the article to show what the press is saying and also to show how the airlines are trying to justify their conduct to the public. If Mr. Stroop of American Airlines is correctly quoted, Federationists know that he has uttered unequivocal falsehoods. The question then arises as to why Mr. Stroop would do this. Are airline officials perhaps afraid to face the real issues in the controversy? Here is the Post Intelligencer article:

Gary and Denise Mackenstadt boarded their American Airlines flight in Chicago along with the other passengers, found their assigned seats and settled in for the flight home to Seattle. But the seats were in the emergency exit row--forbidden territory for blind people such as Gary Mackenstadt. The flight crew asked the Mackenstadts to move.

The Bothell couple sat firm, forcing a standoff that ended when several Chicago police officers escorted the 3 7-year-old blind man off the plane.

"The feeling of the airlines is blind people are like children," said an angry Denise Mackenstadt.

Matter of Safety

"We view these policies as discriminatory--on the same level as having blacks sit in the back of the bus."

But American Airlines, like many other major carriers, argues the policies are a matter of safety, even though they have triggered similar confrontations with blind people across the nation.

"The safety of the entire cabin full of people is at stake," said American Airlines spokesman Joe Stroop in Fort Worth, Texas. "We're not picking on blind people."

He said the airline policy also prevents such passengers as pregnant women and the obese from sitting near the exit doors.

"Less Than Agile"

With the controversy in full bloom this year, some participants at a recent Federal Aviation Administration conference in Seattle have suggested that it may be a matter for the FAA to settle. Ellen Hill, of the Joint Council of Flight Attendant Unions, presented a recommendation that "less than agile" people be prohibited from sitting in exit rows. "It's politically a real hot potato," she said.

"What we're trying to do is in everybody's best interest. If they got up slowly, they're going to be trampled. They will be pushed and shoved. We're busy doing other things; we can't really assist them at that point."

Wayne Williams of the National Transportation Safety Association agreed, saying, "You've got to have able-bodied people at those exits.

"In a real accident, about half of the flight attendants are incapacitated or killed. In many cases, there's been survival because a passenger opened the exit door."

But the Mackenstadt's and Kenneth Jernigan, President of the National Federation of the Blind, believe safety is not the issue.

"It is my belief that if you take the average run of blind person and the average run of sighted person, their chances are equal for getting out of the airplane without blocking the exit rows," Jernigan said.

Jernigan described a number of confrontations between blind passengers and airlines, some of which have resulted in lawsuits that as yet are unresolved. Among the most widely publicized was the case involving Judy Sanders, who refused to vacate an exit row on a People Express flight in Boston. She was arrested but her case was ultimately dismissed. She is suing the airline and police department for false arrest. Jernigan also recalled the case of Sue Ammeter of Seattle, who objected when she found a blanket on her seat on an Alaskan Airlines flight. The flight attendant said it was to throw Ammeter out the exit in an emergency. Ammeter brought action before the Washington State Human Rights Commission and won $1,000 from the airline, plus an apology.

Reece Gilstrap, assistant vice president for customer services at Alaskan Airlines, said the incident never should have occurred. He said airline policy suggested blankets for disabled or nonambulatory passengers--not the blind.

Stroop suggested that many of the confrontations have been planned in advance by the National Federation of the Blind, which he said has become very militant over the issue.

But Jernigan said some confrontations have arisen even though blind passengers specifically asked not to get exit row seats.

Stroop said his airline has done everything it can to let the blind organizations prove they can safely operate the exit doors.

He said members of a Texas blind organization and the National Federation of the Blind were once invited to participate in a demonstration of emergency evacuation procedures in American Airlines flight simulators.

"Our safety people were not satisfied with the results," Stroop said. "To open the door, they must release the latch, remove the emergency door and literally throw it out of the way. "The blind folks were unable to do that. "

Until now, the FAA has remained silent on the issue, requiring only that airlines establish their own policies regarding handicapped passengers or "those who need assistance of another." The Mackenstadts and Jernigan argue that the airline policies are inconsistent because they allow people to drink--and perhaps become inebriated--while sitting in the exit rows.

As a result of the Seattle conference, the FAA has begun forming working groups to study some of the major safety concerns. Stroop said the conflict with the blind is only a minor part of a much larger problem. He said government officials are beginning to realize they must address the entire issue of safely evacuating airplanes.

As part of that, he said, it is likely the government may insist on design changes for emergency exit doors to provide easier, safer, and faster exits from the aircraft.