Herein lies the follow-up to the well-traveled story of Sarah Mueller and her regrettable experience with AirTran Airways on a recent family vacation.
There’s been a lot of chatter about whether AirTran was right or wrong in pulling Sarah and her mother out of the exit row seats they’d paid extra for and reseating them in standard seating. AirTran did not offer Sarah a refund for the extra money she paid for the exit row seats, and the gate agent treated her dreadfully. AirTran based its decision on the fact that Sarah was using the wheelchair service to get to and from the gates. Here’s her letter, which has received a stunning and fabulous 15,000+ views. It describes her altercation with AirTran earlier this year.
After posting briefly about this a few weeks ago, and following some ensuing brouhaha on other websites, I asked Sarah if she’d do an interview with me. She agreed, and through the magic of teh innerwebz I was able to see her face and hear her voice as she talked about her experience from the center of the cyclone of commentary her letter has produced.
The most important piece of information I got from talking to Sarah was simple: she’s a human being, and would like to be treated like one. In fact, she’s funny and a little bit sarcastic, busy as heck between work and school and family and friends. She’s young and active–she works out 3 times a week on an elliptical trainer, walks as much as she can (especially when she travels to warm climates), and has never measured how much weight she can lift though she’s been known to arm wrestle on occasion. She uses a wheelchair when she flies–which she has done alone at least 10 times–because walking long distances and standing in long lines aggravates the chronic pain caused by her medical condition. Sarah has spina bifida myelomeningocele L-5 S-1 (click the link to learn what that means).
Sarah doesn’t want to get anyone at AirTran fired. She doesn’t want a free trip. An apology would be nice, but what Sarah really wants is for what happened to her not to happen to anybody else.
Since everyone else seems to have an opinion on the subject, I suppose I should weigh in on whether I think AirTran was right or wrong to pull Sarah out of her exit row seat on the grounds that they didn’t think she’d be capable of helping during an emergency. My opinion: AirTran was wrong in its conduct, despite the technical correctness of its decision.
Following are AirTran’s regulations for exit row seating:
Exit Row Seating. Exit row coach seating (with additional leg room) is also available for purchase. All customers choosing exit row seating (whether purchased in advance or assigned at check-in) must meet certain requirements to qualify for exit row seating. You must be:
- 15 years of age or older
- Willing and able to help in the event of an emergency
- Not traveling with an infant, children or pets
- Able to speak and understand English
- Able to lift 50 pounds
- Not using a seat belt extender (which could get tangled in an emergency)
Note that these regs say NOTHING about wheelchair assistance. There’s a vague comment about “able to help in the event of an emergency.” This provides precious little for anyone, passenger or employee, to go on. Basically, the passenger’s got to decide for herself if she feels able enough to perform the emergency exit functions. Sarah feels that she could do it. Sarah is young and except for her condition, healthy. I’ve frankly got no reason not to believe her.
After 15 minutes of wading through the FAA website (no, thank you, I don’t want flying lessons!) I finally found the “real” United States regulations pertaining to exit row seating. Here they are.
I’ve never taken Sarah to the gym and asked her to do a 50-pound dead-lift. Thus I cannot say with any certainty whether she could assist properly in an emergency. Of course I don’t know that about anyone in any of the exit rows on any of the planes currently in the sky, but I bet I could make an educated guess.
So why was Sarah singled out, insulted, and then deprived of the seat she paid extra money for? One word: wheelchair.
A word that you will not find in that federal regulatory document.
The flight attendant heard that Sarah used a wheelchair to get to the gate, and he/she made a set of assumptions. The set of assumptions that almost always get made about people in wheelchairs. A set of assumptions that can be flat-out bullshit wrong.
We’ll start with me. I use airport wheelchair services when I fly. Does that mean I can’t lift 50 pounds? I’m an ex-athlete–I was a serious competitive gymnast and a full-armor medieval swordfighter before I got sick. Last night I performed a test, in the form of a press-handstand, in my living room. That is, I stood with my legs apart, put down my hands, and without jumping or kicking or getting help from another person, dragged my body into a handstand position using the muscles of my shoulders and back. So yes, I can lift 50 pounds if I must. But air travel exhausts me, and I take strong medication for pain that sometimes renders me less than clear-headed. Thus I deliberately avoid exit rows because *I* don’t feel like I’m always up for the task of dealing with the exit procedure.
Second case: my friend A has Crohn’s Disease–a moderate to severe hidden disability. You’d never know it to look at him–he’s a personal fitness trainer by profession. He can toss 50 pounds around like it was a rubber ball. I can’t think of anyone I’d rather have at the emergency door of an airplane.
Third case: my friend L recently developed a wretched case of food poisoning a couple of days before flying home from a vacation. She’d finished getting rid of the bad food by the time her flight rolled around, but she still felt weak and light-headed. Having read my stuff for over a year, she had a bright idea–skip the long walk, longer lines, and strong possibility of passing out in the airport by asking for wheelchair service. It helped her hugely, and she got home without blacking out. L has no disabilities of any kind. She was, in fact, sick.
So what does this big ol’ mess mean for the future?
In my opinion, it means that the FAA and/or each individual airline need to make some codified changes in their handling of exit row seating.
1. Exit row seats should not engender extra charges or be given to frequent fliers. These seats are not part of the “extra room for extra cash” section. There are serious safety issues surrounding exit row seating, and safety should come before profit.
2. The seating in the exit row of passengers who use the wheelchair service MUST BE CODIFIED. In other words, if the airlines are going to ban people in wheelchairs from sitting in the exit rows, they need to grow a pair and say so. In writing. Where passengers can read it BEFORE they purchase seats. Ditto the FAA. This issue’s going to become more and more prevalent as the Baby Boomers enter their golden years. Yup, it’s absolutely going to cause negative backlash to the airlines when/if they do this. Buck up, boys–the world is a hard place and sometimes bad publicity happens. You know what’s worse than being an airline exec facing bad publicity? Having a physical condition that requires the use of a wheelchair.
My summary of thoughts on Sarah’s situation: AirTran had the technical right to kick her out of the seat, because they can technically do that to anyone in an exit row. BUT, they did it poorly, and in doing it this time but not previously showed the deep flaw in their own and the FAA’s (lack of) regulation of exit row seating. AirTran owes Sarah an apology in writing for the world to see, and a refund of the overage she paid for the seats she and her mother did not get to sit in.
As of my last chat with Sarah, AirTran has not yet responded to her in any way. AirTran–you’d do better to respond. In the United States you’ve got 54 million potential customers who happen to have disabilities. 70 million potential customers in this country suffer from some kind of chronic pain.
But we’re not all financial cripples. Want our travel budgets in your coffers? Do you?
What do you say?