You may have heard about Michigan resident Johnnie Tuitel being removed from a September US Airways flight after the airline declared he was “too disabled to fly.” This bizarre story appeared on Fox, MSNBC, ABC, CBS, and hundreds of local radio and television newscasts.
“I was headed to Kansas City to speak to an advocacy group,” said 47-year-old Tuitel, who was born with cerebral palsy, uses a wheelchair, and is a top-tier, comedy-oriented, motivational speaker. “I get to the airport and check in. The guy at the counter assures me he’ll help me to the plane. We drove to the gate, he pre-boards me, and rolls me on. He puts me in my seat and leaves.”
Ten minutes later, an airline employee asked him to leave the plane to talk. Tuitel thought the worst: had his wife or three children been in an accident? In the boarding area, the employee instead said, “We’ve determined you’re too disabled to fly by yourself.” After boarding and seating him, the airline now was removing him without his or a physician’s input. Only by bringing a companion and paying for an extra ticket would he be allowed to fly on to Kansas City.
Tuitel flies by himself about 35 times a year and over a 20-year career had never been denied a seat because of his disability. The airline expressed concern about his ability to respond to an emergency.
So what would happen in an emergency? “If we’re all going down, there’s a pretty good chance no one’s going to make it anyway,” said Tuitel. “However, I was trained at an early age by firemen how to get on my belly and crawl. I have a very strong upper body. I could crawl out of a plane with a couple people on my back.” The irony of the situation, he said, was that a man in ankle shackles and handcuffs being taken to a prison was seated behind him. Tuitel wondered how that man could have handled an emergency.
Since September, he has received about 60 emails from people claiming similar treatment from airlines. He wants to fix the situation so others don’t face such inconvenience and embarrassment. The airline, which in October had asked him to join a committee to address disability issues, now won’t return his telephone calls. He hasn’t heard from them in months, he said.