Friday, October 15, 2010

US Airways kicks Michigan man with CP off flight, saying he's "too disabled"


GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. -- Johnnie Tuitel (pictured) has criss-crossed the country hundreds of times as a motivational speaker, racking up about 500,000 air miles over the past couple years.

The Grand Rapids man, who has used a wheelchair almost his entire life, has never been asked to fly with a companion, but that's exactly what he says happened when a U.S. Airways agent told him he's "too disabled to fly by himself" and asked him to exit the plane before takeoff.

Tuitel, who has cerebral palsy, boarded a flight from West Palm Beach International Airport on September 23.

He was heading out to speak at the 2010 National Self Advocacy Conference in Kansas City.

When he checked in, the airline agent offered to help him board the plane.

After he was seated, the employee came back and told Tuitel had had to get off the plane, he said.

"I immediately thought something was up with my family," he said on Oct. 14. "I let him take me off the plane -- didn't know why, a little apprehensive, a little confused. He proceeded to tell me, he said I am too disabled to fly by myself."

Tuitel eventually arrived in Kansas City through Delta Airlines with no problem, but missed his speaking engagement.

On its website, U.S. Airways says:

"For safety-related reasons, if a passenger has a mobility impairment so severe that a person is unable to physically assist in his or her own evacuation of the aircraft, U.S. Airways requires that the passenger travel with a safety assistant" at their own expense.

Tuitel understand the policy but said he thinks it's overreach.

"We're sitting together on a plane, something happens, are you going to help me?" he asked. "Of course you are."

Tuitel flies alone to keep costs down, he said.

He believes it was a personal decision by the agent who changed his mind about Tuitel's disability when he seated him on the plane.

The incident goes beyond violating the American Disabilities Act, said Tuitel, who is considering legal action.

"This is a flat out issue of civil rights," he said.

US Airways confirms that it did receive a complaint but says the flight information Tuitel put in his press release does not match their records.

The airline says it is in their discretion to determine if a passenger needs a companion.

A spokesperson says in this case it was concern by the airline agent, a manager who assisted Tuitel and a flight attendant.