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A Total Failure for Disabled Consumers

December 6, 2018

What first appeared to be a story of a disastrous airport trip highlighting the ongoing failure of airlines to serve travelers with disabilities has become quite something else: a cautionary tale about the easy exploitation of people with disabilities along with those working hard to integrate a still underserved population into the mainstream.

As originally told: American Airlines passenger left in wheelchair overnight after flight home was cancelled

The events laid bare the persistent gaps in service and understanding that often have a disheartening effect on travelers who need assistance during the airport experience. But a follow-up investigation by the airline that had been called to account told a different story, one of a family manipulating the narrative to conflate disability and age with helplessness and victimization.

Security footage shows woman in wheelchair was not abandoned at O’Hare Airport

The authors of this drama drew shrewdly on the public perception of airlines and airports as uncaring megaliths devoid of a service culture or commitment. The bitter irony of this story is that serious lapses in service and understanding of travelers with disabilities very much persist. But apparent fabrications of victimhood like those spun by the family in this case are much more likely to turn service providers away from efforts at improving quality and accountability and toward suspicion and intolerance.

Unfortunately, virtually every player in this shabby story—with the exception of the porter who accompanied the passenger while she was in the airport—deserves a healthy measure of blame for how it unfolded.

The family that first spread word of the nasty treatment of their elderly, grieving and disabled relative stopped returning calls once their deception was revealed. The airline, before investigating tapes that showed what had really happened, was quick not only to blame the porter but also to make it clear that this porter was employed by a contractor rather than by the airline. Then, once camera footage allowed the airline to demonstrate a timeline and activity that countered the fabrications, it was just as quick to claim vindication—with the same smugness with which it had made it clear that the porter was not an airline employee.

It is tempting to supply a ranking of responsibility when doling out blame for what went down. But the family was merely trying to reap a bountiful harvest from a soil that has been rendered quite fertile by years of airlines and airports playing a haphazard game of catch-up and the resulting unhappy experiences reported by passengers with and without disabilities.

The family. Family members appeared to know from the start that their relative had the wherewithal to deal with the unexpected circumstances that often disrupt travel plans, and they appear to have made contingency plans for that possibility. Why they spun the narrative of an unfortunate and aggrieved senior citizen is anybody’s guess, but most likely they were looking for a free ticket as an apology from the airline. It was initially shocking to learn that the person who had escorted his relative to her gate had simply left her there to catch his own flight. It seemed natural that, if she was in as poor condition as they suggested, this was negligent and selfish behavior. The fact this person felt comfortable leaving his relative on her own actually suggests that he knew she could fend for herself, especially since the airline had been given proper instructions on what to do if there was a problem.

The airline. Airlines, especially major carriers, take full advantage of their branding throughout airports and do their best to showcase their friendliness and efficiency at every possible point as the party responsible for the safety and comfort of passengers. If the airlines feel so comfortable passing the buck when things go wrong, perhaps they should make clear what organizations are really responsible for the safety of passengers at the gate and throughout the terminal. To say that a porter is not an airline employee is not only irrelevant, it is at best disingenuous and at worst a blatant misdirection; in this case, the passenger was left in the care of American Airlines and the transportation contractor, whether reporting to the airline or to the airport authority, was responsible to both.

The Airport Authority. This body is ultimately responsible for the safety of all those who pass through its gates. In routinely delegating the care of the disabled to a contractor that operates with practically no branding or public profile and hires minimally qualified workers with minimal training and oversight is where these problems stem from and come home to roost.

The disability transportation services provider/contractor. This organization, as stated above, hires and trains minimally qualified and poorly paid and trained personnel for a challenging job that can require competence in health care at a maximum and understanding of service at a minimum. They operate with little transparency or oversight, and have minimal or no accountability.

This outrageous boomerang story may have been an outlier, but it nonetheless highlights the need for comprehensive review and reform of standards for serving travelers with disabilities—along with seniors or others needing assistance—in the airport and flight environment. From planning and coordination to hiring and training, real improvements are within reach. But the most critical change is farther off: a changed understanding and acceptance of the true value of these consumers.

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