JFK Airport "Zero;" Delta Airlines "Won" Regarding Disability Inclusion

I flew home on a business trip this week from Las Vegas, Nevada, to JFK airport in New York, and once again the trip was daunting and frustrating.

Airline travel is tough enough for all of us, however, when you have a disability and are traveling in a wheelchair, it becomes even more challenging. As a backdrop, I've been traveling for more than 35 years as a wheelchair rider and a C5-C6 quadriplegic. I basically travel when I must, especially when there is a business purpose involved.

I was returning from a disability inclusion conference with an organization called Disability:In, formally known as USBLN.  My team and I had just been recognized on behalf of our firm, JPMorgan Chase, as one of the best companies to work for if you have a disability and are qualified to compete for employment opportunities.

A perfect landing, but no wheelchair

I had already done four transfers to and from from my wheelchair by the time I arrived at JFK airport in New York on Delta flight 371. When members of the ground crew arrived to lift me from my airline seat into the narrow airline-provided aisle chair, I was already tired and anxious to get home.

As the last person off the plane, I waited in the jetway for my power wheelchair to arrive from the cargo area. We were soon informed, however, that I had to transfer yet again into another airport-provided chair and pushed to the location where my power wheelchair was being held hostage. That would mean another two transfers for me on my already strained arms and shoulders -- and a total of six lifts and transfers for this leg of my trip home.
When traveling, I sit on an uncomfortable aisle chair ,
such as this one, also at jFK. . 

When I asked why they couldn't bring my power chair to the jetway as usual, which is done at other airports as well as in New York and New Jersey, we were told that the "grounds crew was understaffed" and I had to transfer to another chair and go to their location. 

My response was: "#@%*!"-- I'm not moving!"

We had this conversation while one of the pilots and several  stewards were standing along side us and waiting to "deplane" so the aircraft could be fueled and boarded for the next flight -- with a hundred or more passengers.

When the Delta Airline captain heard what was happening, as told to him by the grounds crew, he said to us that "he'd be right back."

As we all waited with crew and airline wheelchair helpers, a few minutes later the captain arrived with my wheelchair. The captain apologized and said, "I'm sorry you had to go through this." 

I was then transferred into my wheelchair and scooted out of the jetway a few minutes later. As I entered the departure area, there were more than 150 people waiting to board the plane.

Understaffed: Customer focus needed

It's sad, all this turmoil because the NY Port Authority grounds crew was understaffed and could not deliver my wheelchair as they usually do. My gratitude goes to the Delta pilot who took it upon himself to do the right thing. He was incredulous that this incident occurred. Little does he know, this happens more often than not to wheelchair riders and others as we navigate the "friendly skies" of airline travel.

This should not happen in this day and age of the 21st century. People with disabilities should not be subjected to the indignity of the airline transportation industry.

Almost 30 years ago I was able to fly while sitting in my wheelchair. I traveled from New York to Minnesota for a spinal cord injury conference. The airline at the time locked me down in the first class section while in my wheelchair, facing the aisle. I was using an ancient Everest & Jennings model wheelchair, and when we landed, I rolled off the plane to my destination -- without being lifted or transfered.  

A 21st Century Disability Inclusion Opportunity

In this day and age, I can't believe that the airline industry can't figure this out. Every other mode of transportation, such as boating, automobiles, buses, trains, taxicabs all allow for people with disabilities to be transported while in their wheelchairs. Why not the passenger airline industry?

There is just no reason for this except for lack of vision, costs, or ignorance. Airlines, for example, perhaps don't want to give up first-class seats. Well, let's redesign the plane! 

Aircraft manufacturers, who are capable of  redesigning airline cabins, seem to hedge on a universally designed accessible plane for their customers in the airline industry. Universal design works for everyone, especially for folks who may have a temporary disability.

I don't see any reason why this change cannot be made right now -- as we have 1 billion people who have disabilities worldwide, according to the World Health Organization -- who face transportation discrimination and potentially higher travel costs because they may need a companion to accompany them as planes are not accessible. 

According to the Open Doors Organization, there’s an economic case for more accessible airplanes, based on the group's 2015 survey, which found 11 million travelers with disabilities took 23 million trips over the past two years, spending $9 billion on their flights in the process. But 72 percent of those who traveled by air said “they encountered major obstacles with airlines,” indicating there’s a lot of room for improvement. (web article by Aarian Marshall, "The airplane of the future could be much more accessible for passengers with disabilities" )

Because I can't travel in my wheelchair while flying, I have to travel with two people and pay for their seats as well. So, for me traveling costs more, and, I'm afraid to travel alone because I'm completely paralyzed. 

I also believe that if the airline industry changed its passenger aircraft footprint, more people with disabilities would travel alone, as well as with family members or friends -- and with more dignity than we have now.

People with disabilities would also travel more frequently and establish a new airline demographic as people with disabilities usually travel in "packs" -- meaning family members travel with their loved ones who are disabled. 

Here are some quick points to consider: 

1. It's time to come out of the dark ages with wheelchair travel and our airlines. Every other major mode of transportation  has a adapted to a more inclusive model --- trains, cars, buses, vans, and boats. Why not airlines?

2. Major airline manufacturers must redesign passenger aircraft to be more inclusive. What is practiced now is called making an "accommodation," in the world of disability. And, it's not a very good accommodation or "reasonable adjustment," which is a term used in the United Kingdom.

3.  The airline industry, business and government should collaborate to make this happen. This will be good for jobs --  by employing more qualified people with disabilities -- with little or no travel restrictions, and allowing people with disabilities to participate in society more fully, 

This paradigm shift will help break the glass ceiling as people with disabilities will be able to travel more equitably along side their ablebodied colleagues. 

4. I do believe we need a wheelchair standard for flight, which can be designed into "everyday use wheelchairs," as we do with automobiles and other equipment. Let's not create a scenario where we have to buy more than one wheelchair to board a plane.

5. I have been disabled for more than 35 years and still I continue to advocate for airline travel equity and equality. I urge my disability colleagues around the world to continue pushing for change as well.



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