Deplaned and Detained for Disability — Who’s Next? | Opinion
August 7, 2017
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  • Over the past six months I’ve read articles about the airlines with bewilderment. We all saw the footage of Dr. David Dao’s ordeal aboard a United Airlines plane, and author and conservative pundit Ann Coulter’s heated tweets about Delta Air Lines were national news.

    Then I read about Mark Smith, a man with cerebral palsy, traveling on business for Pride Mobility, the company that makes the wheelchair in which he was traveling. This spring, he too was removed from his seat, strapped to a chair in the gate area and never given an explanation why, he says. American Airlines issued a half-baked “sensitivity to disabilities” statement but made no reparations.

    Smith is pursuing legal action.

    It’s no surprise consumer complaints against the “big three” (Delta, United and American) are at an all-time high. The New York Times recently ran a story called “Court Directs FAA to Revisit Issue of ‘Shrinking’ Airline Seat Space,” which cited a 2015 petition from Flyers Rights, a consumer advocacy group concerned with air safety.

    As Americans have gotten larger, the average seat size in coach is down an inch. Legroom is the distance from seat to seat, which has decreased from 35 inches to 31. Flyers Rights sees this as a grave concern, especially in an emergency situation. With so many people packed into a sardine can, smooth evacuation of the aircraft, the group maintains, is nearly impossible.

    The tension in the air is so great. I couldn’t imagine these incidents happening to me. Until I joined the “Mile Low Club.”

    On a recent Saturday night, after boarding a delayed domestic flight bound for Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood airport, the gate agent boarded the plane, approached me and said, “You, you come with me.” She lead me out to the jetway and asked if I had been drinking or taken any drugs. “I take medication every day for bipolar disorder and have a related syndrome, Tardive Dyskinesia, which is similar to Parkinson’s. Are we good?”

    She didn’t answer. Peering into my purse, she peppered me with more invasive questions. I didn’t want to end up in airport jail, so I hid my irritation and went into educator mode (This bores people silly and frees me from sticky situations). By the time I got to “I’m writing a book about …,” Bingo! I had her disinterest. As she beat her retreat, I asked her why she’d flagged and dragged me.

    “Your balance was off,” she said.

    Balance is an issue with so many health conditions, including chronic pain, low blood sugar, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, aging — just being a human being.

    So what do I do? Traveling as a “person in need of assistance” won’t do much good since the airlines are disability deaf.

    What really gets me is the unbridled greed — carriers packing more seats on their jets just because they can. That’s what’s driving the tension between flight crews and passengers.

    Today’s airlines enjoy the power of a police state. We relinquish our rights when we purchase our tickets.

    Many of us have made noise about this untenable situation. It’s not working. How about we stop buying airline tickets for a week? The sky hogs will be grounded on crowded tarmacs; their CEO’s pondering their pitiful PR. Will they restore legroom, allow us to check a free bag or resize our seats? How about all three?

    This would make for great in-flight entertainment.

    Allison Biszantz is a South Florida resident, writer and mental-health advocate.