Weekly Reading List: Air Travel Edition

Illustration of a two-engine airliner viewed face-on in flight, with a blue sky background and a few wispy white clouds

Games They Play
Athena Stevens, Center for Disability Rights - June 10, 2016

The Others: The Disabled and United Airlines
Brian Rivera, Medium - June 6, 2016

Get Wheelchair Travel Tips on Airports and Plane Flights: check-in, security, aisle chairs and more!
Wheelchair Traveling - October 25, 2012

All Wheels Up, Inc.

I recently started watching YouTube videos of high-end air travel experiences. There’s something almost obsessively indulgent about vicariously enjoying a luxury flight from London to Los Angeles, or flying to New Zealand with a couple of fun, carefree young travelers lucky enough to to get a Business Class upgrade. The only thing I’d like better would be videos of disabled people traveling this way, with this kind of pampering and enjoyment. I've seen wheelchair travel videos on YouTube that are basically "how to" guides, like the video linked above, but none that show either really good wheelchair flying experiences, or any that document how badly things can and often do go wrong.

Of all the consumer service businesses, airlines may be the worst when it comes to accommodating customers with disabilities, especially significant mobility impairments. The only wheelchair users I have met who haven’t had at least one spectacularly bad experience with air travel are those who have never flown.

There are probably several reasons for this.

Airlines aren't known for flawless service as it is, at least for passengers flying Coach. While the industry does manage to move millions of people a week over miraculous distances, with just a tiny number of catastrophic failures, most fliers with or without disabilities have stories about being treated like cattle, or worse.

It’s also undeniably true that the way airliners are designed makes real, independent accessibility extremely difficult, at least from the airlines’ perspective. Aircraft aisles are narrow, and the only way to accommodate peoples own wheelchairs in-flight would be to remove seats, which is something airlines simply can’t fathom ever doing … except for the notable fact that First Class sections are comfortable precisely because they put in fewer seats.

Finally, based on the articles linked above, it appears that airlines cope with the accessibility and accommodation requirements that are imposed on them by dividing responsibility among several adjunct service providers. Flight attendants aren’t responsible for getting disabled passengers on and off planes. Wheelchairs are handled by baggage people who have no contact with the wheelchair users themselves, or even the airlines. There are probably mundane business reasons to run things this way, but intentionally or not, it also everyone involved with deniability. Everyone is responsible and nobody is responsible.

The upshot is that disabled people, especially those with wheelchairs, almost have to expect to be treated terribly, and possibly suffer significant physical and financial harm, if they attempt to fly as freely as everyone else does. It seems like no amount of advance preparation and perfect self-advocacy has much effect at all on outcomes. Sometimes everything works our fine. Sometimes everything goes wrong. It’s a crap shoot with at best even odds.

Aside from the physical failures, disabled people also end up feeling that they are simply not wanted. By and large, it just seems like airlines would rather that disabled people didn’t fly at all. They certainly don't seem to try very hard to make disabled passengers feel welcomed, or to feel that anything but absolutely essential air travel is ever a good idea. And for what it's worth, I think a lot of non-disabled frequent fliers feel the same way. Read an article on the perils of flying with a disability, and if there's a comment section, someone will post something to the effect that people who can't hack flying shouldn't fly.

When a restaurant has steps to get in or an accessible restroom blocked by delivery boxes and highchairs, it’s still possible to believe that the staff do want you as a customer, but are just too ignorant or apathetic to make it work when it counts.

But when these enormous airline businesses with massively expensive, highly complex systems, and a remarkable record of moving millions of people all over the globe, in the air, at hundreds of miles per hour, safely … when they can’t manage to get a wheelchair off a plane without breaking it … it sure seems like they fundamentally would prefer you’d just stay home.

This is where we run into the hard limits of civil rights laws. If you can force or partially coerce a restaurant to be accessible, chances are the people running the place will then at least go ahead and make a personal effort to give you a good dining experience. But when you force an airline to provide accommodations they basically believe are infeasible, they’re going to do it in the most grudging and negligent way they can get away with. It’s their conscious or unconscious way of doing it under protest and sending the signal that you’re not wanted.

If that makes it all sound hopeless, I don’t mean it to be. Affordable air travel is a miracle. I, personally, have never had a really bad flying experience because of my disabilities. But I can walk. I can fend for myself with just a tiny bit of extra help. As far as the airlines are concerned, I'm not really disabled ... just a bit high maintenance. I have traveled with wheelchair users though, and the callousness, stupidity, and low-tech-ness involved astounded me.

It seems to me the best answer is some combination of creating more space so wheelchair users can fly in their wheelchairs, and making all airline personnel directly responsible for ensuring positive outcomes with disabled travelers … passing the buck absolutely not allowed.