PR Failure #31: Fly the Accessible Friendly Skies (or NOT!?)

A perception persists that persons in need of a wheelchair or other assistive device don’t travel (or don’t travel often). However, the World Health Organization estimates there are 1.3 billion people in the world experiencing a significant disability, which represents more than 16% of the world’s population. And research shows that U.S. travelers alone, with mobility disabilities specifically, spend approximately $58.2 billion per year on travel.

Despite stats like these and existing regulations, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), inequity endures. Enacted in 1986, the ACAA prevents domestic and foreign passenger airlines from discriminating against people with mental or physical disabilities. But, many travel-related organizations, and airlines specifically, struggle to serve individuals who require accessible accommodations. Whether not allowing someone to board due to what can’t be brought onboard, injuring someone due to inadequate training, or damaging someone’s assistive device due to improper handling, stories abound of airports and airlines failing passengers in the moment and failing with communications after the fact.

Let’s look at a few recent situations, where airlines did not make the skies accessible, for lessons learned on how to do and be better.

1. Failure to Welcome All Aboard

In September, Alaska Airlines passenger Jon Hetherington was heading to a Beyoncé concert in Seattle. Upon arriving at his local airport, encountering agents who remembered and had assisted him before, he was informed the airplane he was flying on was not large enough to accommodate his wheelchair. While Jon did say gate staff did everything they could to get him to Seattle, including working to collapse his chair or book him on another flight, nothing ultimately could be done to get him to the show in time. Staff then helped Jon file a complaint and refunded his ticket. Unfortunately for Jon, this is not the first time he has encountered an issue traveling, and for many others, his experience is not isolated or unique.

Several media outlets covered the story, and the Alaska Airlines statement read:

“We feel terrible about our guest’s travel experience with us. We’re always aiming to do better as we encounter situations such as this one…There’s no requirement for guests to alert us that they have a disability or that they’re using a mobility aid. However, we always encourage them to reach out and put in a special service request (SSR) for a mobility aid so we can alert them if there’s a possible issue.”

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Lessons Learned

As Jon noted in interviews, there are larger issues at play around ableism that he’s faced throughout his life. And while airline staff were friendly and did what they could to assist him, the company’s statement puts the onus on travelers with accessibility needs to intuit what may be an issue. Jon effectively uses social media to educate and shine a light on his experiences. And positively in this case, his story does illustrate the power of online platforms. When he took to TikTok to share what had happened, Beyoncé fans activated and helped get him to a later concert, where he got to meet the Queen B herself. Though Jon is reportedly indifferent to Alaska following up with him, a meaningful, authentic communication could make a further difference.

Disclaimer: I’m a big fan of Alaska and fly them as a loyal customer. To me, this issue of travel is larger than this one airline. It is a societal issue.

2. Failure to Train Attendants in Accessibility

Even when a traveler may be aware of potential issues and do their best to address these in advance, inadequate staff training can strike. And this can take many forms from humiliating to life-threatening.

American Airlines passenger Matt Wetherbee took a trip in late 2021, which began with the airline boarding him last though this is inconsistent with procedure. In news coverage, Matt shared this was embarrassing for him given the transfer process that must happen and fact that all eyes were on him. But what came next was worse. Just before takeoff, Matt was informed his chair wouldn’t fit despite having successfully flown previously on the same sized aircraft without a fit issue. Given the choice of staying overnight without the things he’d need or remaining on the flight and having his chair arrive later, Matt opted to fly. Upon arriving home, this essentially meant he had to spend the next 20 hours in bed, with no option to move around, waiting for his chair to arrive.

When asked for comment, American Airlines initially said: “Our team will look into this and is reaching out to the customer to better understand his experience.”

They later released a statement that read: “We strive to provide a safe and enjoyable experience to all our customers, including those who fly with wheelchairs and assistive devices, and we sincerely regret that Mr. Wetherbee had a negative experience with us.”

Image of an X post from Matt Wetherbee that reads: After my chair was damaged twice on 2 separate American Air flights, grounds crew in Charlotte refused to load it in cargo because there was too much other luggage (federal violation). Still don't have chair 16hrs later.

Lessons Learned

The statements here are inadequate. American should have responded with greater empathy and a solution. Though the apology was technically correct and didn’t subtly direct some of the blame toward Matt, not providing any steps the company will take to fix this for the future was a misstep. It doesn’t go far enough in understanding Matt was deprived of liberty as he waited for his chair. Worse, it’s tonally deaf due to this being dangerous. Chairs are expensive, and therefore, many people do not have a backup. They’re often customized specifically to the individual to prevent threatening issues. The spirit of American’s response basically amounted to “sorry you had a bad time.” Some people have been dropped and injured in the transfer process, and traveler Engracia Figueroa lost her life after developing a pressure sore from not having access to her specially designed chair an airline mishandled.

3. Failure to Keep Precious Cargo Safe

The Department of Transportation reports that airlines “mishandle” an average 1.5% of the mobility equipment they transport. In 2022, this equated to 11,389 incidents reported by U.S. airlines. Before her death, Engracia advocated for change that led to a federal investigation, and many others are speaking out as well.

Neena Nizar and her sons Arshaan Adam and Jahan Adam depend on their chairs for mobility. Neena travels frequently for work, and all three must travel to access special treatment for their incredibly rare disorder, Jansen’s metaphyseal chondrodysplasia. Their chairs have been damaged multiple times by various airlines. And on a recent Southwest flight, Neena witnessed (and videotaped) her chair being dropped. Neena noted it’s a compounding problem, as not every area has a nearby repair shop. So, they’re inconvenienced by various costs, wait time for custom parts, communications with the responsible airline, finding the closest company, taking off work to travel to the repair shop, and more.

When asked for comment, Southwest issued a general statement about mobility device damages to USA TODAY:

“Our teams have been in touch with the customer to assist them with their individual situation.”

Image of post on X by Neena Nizar that reads Thanks @Southwest for breaking the control panel right off his chair! At this point, nothing surprises us anymore. "If I don't smile. I will cry." Hashtag Airlines Damage Wheelchairs. Photo of boy in in wheelchair holding the broken off control panel for his chair in his hand.

Lessons Learned

Echoing comments Neena made in the USA TODAY piece, there are big issues to fix, as well as how those issues are talked about. In Neena’s case, she “would like to get an email saying ‘yes we messed up. Here are the things we’re putting in place.’” While there are several promising changes on the horizon for the overall industry, including legislation offering better protections and a new prototype Delta is working on, Southwest’s response here is abysmal. It’s overly general, vague, and lacking in any accountability.

While it’s evident the overall industry could use many improvements to make the travel experience more accessible friendly, and I don’t believe airplanes or staff are acting maliciously, there’s a running thread throughout the public statements—they all lack some element of empathy or understanding. And yes, it can be challenging to take accountability, causing a company to feel exposed legally or otherwise, but compassion in communication costs nothing and means everything. And as a father with a child who has a disability, I’ve experienced many of these things firsthand throughout my son’s young life – and these examples of travel gone wrong for many with disabilities, society does not pay enough attention to the needs of those who need a little extra help in life.

I hope you’ll join me in a companion podcast we’ll be launching soon to discuss these and other PR failures, seeking ways for companies to do and be better.

Hope to see you online, and until next month in your inboxes.

Aaron Blank
President and CEO