Skip to main content

Passenger: Airline said I'm 'too disabled' to fly alone

By Marnie Hunter, CNN
Click to play
Man told he's 'too disabled' to fly alone
  • NEW: Man tells "Prime News" that he won't sue
  • Man was escorted off flight after airline said he was too disabled to fly alone
  • US Airways said the man appeared unable to help himself in case of evacuation
  • Passenger said the incident was a civil rights violation

(CNN) -- Seasoned business traveler Johnnie Tuitel, a motivational speaker who estimates he's flown a half a million miles, experienced a personal air travel first last month.

A US Airways employee told him he was "too disabled to fly" alone, Tuitel said.

Tuitel, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, had already settled into his seat when the airline attendant who helped him onto the plane escorted him off and delivered this news.

"Their argument was if something were to happen, I can't help myself or somebody else, which is an assumption first of all. Second of all, the people that made the decision are not medical doctors," said Tuitel, 47, of East Grand Rapids, Michigan.

"They basically told me I was too disabled to fly and I had to fly with a companion and I had to purchase that companion's ticket," he told HLN's "Prime News."

US Airways said for safety reasons, the airline's official policy requires passengers with severe mobility impairments to travel with someone who would be able to help them evacuate the aircraft.

Video: Too disabled to fly?

US Airways spokeswoman Michelle Mohr said Tuitel was not deemed unfit to fly alone just because he uses a wheelchair.

"He did not appear to have the ability to assist himself in evacuating in the event of an emergency. He appeared to have a lot of difficulty moving," Mohr said.

The head of the American Association of People with Disabilities called the incident "outrageous."

"In some ways, I'm not surprised that it happened because there are still a lot of folks that assume that if you have a significant disability that you shouldn't be traveling by yourself," said Andrew Imparato, the association's president and CEO.

Rich Donovan, who is on the board of trustees of United Cerebral Palsy and also has the disease, doesn't see this incident as one of negligence or an intent to discriminate on the part of US Airways. He attributes Tuitel's experience to a lack of training and a lack of clarity about policies and how they're applied to disabled travelers.

"There's a general lack of understanding of disability amongst the entire travel industry, and I think that's simply because they look at it as a compliance issue, rather than a customer service issue," said Donovan, who is the chief investment officer of IPS Capital.

The September 23 incident on a flight from West Palm Beach, Florida, to Kansas City, Missouri, is the only time Tuitel has been removed from a flight in his 20-year career, he said.

Tuitel initially told CNN he planned to pursue legal action. Later, he told "Prime News" that he would not sue.

The Air Carrier Access Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability. It is unclear whether US Airways' actions violated the act's provisions.

But Tuitel said he wants to make sure this doesn't happen to other disabled passengers.

"I don't want a little boy with a disability not have the opportunity to go somewhere. I don't want a young girl with a disability going out for her first job interview by herself to be told she can't fly in an airplane," he said.

Tuitel said that after he was escorted off the flight, he booked a seat on Delta Air Lines and had no problems traveling alone on that flight.

US Airways contacted him several weeks after the incident, offering to reimburse him for the flight, Tuitel said. He declined the offer. US Airways said it spoke with Tuitel on Friday about collaborating with the airline as it works to improve service for disabled passengers. Tuitel said the conversation was "very productive."

Donovan hopes this incident will be a learning experience for airlines and make customer service better.

"I think some dialogue and some hand-wringing and some getting down into the weeds here is what needs to happen so that this stuff doesn't occur again," he said.

CNN's Megan Miller and Miguel Susana contributed to this report.