Yesterday a story started circulating on social media in which an American female Muslim chaplain named Tahera Ahmad, who was travelling on a United Airlines flight (run by a partner, Shuttle America), asked for a Diet Coke and was given a can which had already been opened. The stewardess refused to give her one that was unopened because it could be used as a weapon, and her behaviour made it clear that this was because of her religion (she gave an unopened beer can to the white male passenger next to her, although when she challenged this, the stewardess took it and opened it for him). The incident, which she reported on Facebook and the screenshot from which has been shared thousands of times, has led to a call to boycott United until they apologise. I think there needs to be more pressure on airlines, and it has to come from above as well as from below. (United published a response to the story; Tahera Ahmad has published her response to that on Facebook, saying she is “truly disappointed”.)
I’ve been seeing stories about airline discrimination for years, and this is one area where my role as Muslim blogger and disability blogger intersect. In the UK, stringent anti-discrimination laws apply even to small businesses, as we see from time to time when a small hotel owner is fined for refusing a gay couple a double bed, or a baker for refusing to ice a pro-gay-marriage slogan on a cake. Yet the obstruction of disabled people in air travel, a much larger industry, persists. Apart from a number of incidents of Muslims being thrown off aeroplanes in the USA after 9/11 because pilots did not want to fly them, the majority of victims of airline discrimination (as opposed to discrimination by the state, such as intrusive searches, no-fly lists, exclusion from a country for spurious reasons and so on) have been disabled travellers. Every time I read about one of these incidents, the same thought goes through my head: these companies really are a law unto themselves. They discriminate apparently freely, and just as they apologise and give a free ticket to one traveller they have harassed or delayed because of their disability, there is another story, indicating that they do not learn from these incidents and perhaps they believe that paying out the odd free ticket costs less than changing their procedures, making alterations to accept wheelchairs on planes, and training their staff to not discriminate and to show basic courtesy.
Of course, there are laws prohibiting discrimination by airlines against disabled people, but the penalties have to be tough enough that the airlines will not find it easier to just pay up and carry on regardless. The US Department of Transport publishes statistics each year regarding the number of complaints about disability discrimination, and the statistics for 2013 (the most recent year available) are here. They show that, for example, a total of 546 complaints were received by wheelchair users (divided into paraplegic, quadriplegic and ‘other wheelchair’) about damage to assistive devices (most likely wheelchairs); 205 similar complaints were received from people with allergies. A very large number of complaints were received about the storage of the devices and the delay getting them back (from the same groups, but “other disability” is also heavily represented here); there were also quite a large number of complaints about refusals to allow boarding, mostly from oxygen-dependent people and the “other disability” category. The numbers of complaints have gone up year on year except for 2011, which may reflect the growth in air travel, but it also reflects a failure by the airlines to address problems which have been known of for years. William Peace noted in a recent blog entry that insurers will not cover a wheelchair on a plane, because the risk of it getting damaged is so great.
A further cause of discrimination and damage by airlines is their tendency to mysteriously and suddenly change policies, such that when a passenger checks in, regardless of whatever written assurances they have received, they are not allowed to board in the manner they had expected, or at all. This happened to musician Dave Schneider, who was prevented from taking his Gibson guitar on board a Delta Airlines flight from Buffalo to Detroit in December 2012, despite having been allowed to take it on a previous Delta flight from Portland to Philadelphia; the instrument was damaged on the carousel just before Schneider could retrieve it. (They later agreed to pay for the repairs ‘and more’, and Gibson gave him a special edition of the same model.) When the BBC reported on how restrictions on hand luggage in the UK were causing damage to instruments and costing musicians a lot of money, one woman wrote that her $30,000 cello, which she had grown up with, was smashed in transit after the airline reneged on their agreement to let it be carried in the cabin. And disabled people often find that, despite assurances to the contrary (or having received no indications to the effect until they get to the airport), they are refused boarding unless they have an attendant, often with the excuse that they will impede other passengers’ exit in the case of an emergency — the “safety hazard” excuse that every disabled person has heard.
Why does this happen? I believe that quite simply the law has not been brought to bear on these companies, perhaps because as large companies, they can lobby politicians not to “burden them with undue costs”. The political climate since 9/11 means that the safety needs of “normal” (white) passengers takes precedence over the desire of those from backgrounds associated with “trouble” or with other special needs not to be discriminated against, particularly in the USA. But experience in public transport in some cities shows that when staff are properly trained, incidents of discrimination beyond physical inaccessibility are rare or non-existent. For example, I have heard stories of holders of disability bus passes in the UK being refused entry because bus drivers did not believe they were really disabled, but in London (where I hold a disability Freedom Pass on the grounds of Asperger’s syndrome), I have never heard of it happening and any time I am asked to show my pass, the photo suffices as proof that I am entitled to it. In other cities in the UK, bus drivers will not make an issue when a mother refuses to move her buggy from the wheelchair space; in London it is made clear that the wheelchair user has priority and bus drivers are instructed not to move until both the wheelchair and buggy are positioned safely. So, it can be done. It just needs for someone in power to have the will.
Airlines enjoy a number of legal privileges which no other form of transport benefits from. They do not pay any fuel duty, for example, which gives them an unfair advantage over land-based forms of public transport, which given that they discharge large quantities of greenhouse gas straight into the atmosphere (far above the tree level), is quite inappropriate at a time where reducing carbon emissions is critical. But as long as it’s cheaper and easier to travel across the USA or Europe by air than by rail, the airlines must feel the full weight of the law when they discriminate against passengers on the grounds of disability, race, religion or anything else and cause them distress, inconvenience or financial loss, whether deliberately or by sloppy communication, poor training, unconscious bias on the part of staff or whatever. Despite their large size and trans-national reach, airlines must know that they are not above the law.
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