A quadriplegic man from Fort Collins was forced off a Frontier Airlines plane because a pilot said it wasn't safe for him to fly.
His mother, Kathleen Morris, said there was no problem two days earlier when her son flew Frontier from Denver International Airport to Dallas to attend a family wedding.
But Sunday afternoon, when he boarded in Dallas to come home, John Morris and his family said they were humiliated.
"When a flight attendant saw John strapped in, they said they would have to clear it with the captain," said Kathleen Morris.
She said that her son is a quadriplegic with limited upper body control.
Morris has flown Frontier Airlines in the past, using an airline seat-belt extension to secure his chest and legs to the seat. The extension is normally used by larger passengers who need a longer seat belt to secure their waist.
"But this time, the pilot refused to take off," she said. "So, I said that we wouldn't get off the plane until they figured it out."
Passengers Offered To Help
Fellow passenger Denny Cannon was seated nearby and overheard that Frontier couldn't use its equipment for medical purposes.
So, he and other upset passengers, offered to help.
"Me and other passengers said, 'Well, sure, use our belts and we'll somehow restrain him and then you won't be using Frontier products," Cannon recalled.
Three Police Officers Responded To Plane
But in the end, to the dismay of other passengers, Frontier called airport police. Three police officers boarded the plane.
Kathleen Morris said she felt it was insensitive that the pilot never came out to talk with her son or examine how he was restrained in his seat.
The mother said sympathetic police officers told her of their discussion with the pilot.
The officers told the pilot this was not a law enforcement matter, according to Kathleen Morris.
"It looks like he's safely restrained," an officer told the pilot, according to Kathleen Morris. "This is not an issue for us, because he's not posing a problem for the plane or other passengers."
The captain again refused to take off with Morris onboard.
"He cannot fly. I want him off this plane," the pilot told police, according to Kathleen Morris.
"It was humiliating," the mother said. "The officers kept apologizing to me and to John and kept saying, 'This is wrong.'"
A snowboarding accident five years ago left John Morris paralyzed.
The 24-year-old Colorado State University student said he couldn't believe how he was treated on the plane, and he was sorry for the delay the incident caused.
"I felt horrible," he said. "I just felt like I didn't belong. I haven't felt that bad since the accident."
"It really broke my heart, because I know what John goes through on a day to day basis, not being able to do things that he certainly would like to, just wanting the opportunity to travel," Kathleen Morris said.
"It was very demoralizing and dehumanizing. It should have been dealt with at the gate, not after he was already boarded," said one passenger.
Frontier: "There Was No Wrong Done Here"
"The pilot did what he thought was best for the safety of this disabled person and the party, as well as the airplane, there was no wrong done here," said Frontier spokesman Peter Kowalchuk. "I don't believe that his rights were violated. We're in the process now of conducting an investigation."
Kowalchuk said the pilot was concerned for the safety of Morris and uncertain whether the seat-belt extension could be used to restrain his legs and torso.
The captain has the ultimate decision on issues regarding passenger safety on a plane, he said.
"The pilot is the CEO of that aircraft, if you will," said Kowalchuk.
Frontier did arrange for the Morris family to take the next flight, and the pilot on that plane had no issues with transporting the disabled man.
"So, one pilot thought that it would not be safe. And another pilot
apparently thought it would not be a threat to anybody's safety," Kowalchuk said.
"How come that was OK for that pilot but not for the original flight?" asked 7NEWS reporter Marshall Zelinger.
"I believe that this is an issue of interpretation of the regulations by the pilot," said Kowalchuk. "On the first flight -- the original flight -- the pilot felt, based on what he read in the regulations, that the application of those restraints was not appropriate."
Department Of Transportation Policy Allows Removal For Safety Reasons
7NEWS reviewed more than 130 pages of Department of Transportation policy on disability and air travel. The policy states:
"If the carrier's reason for excluding a passenger on the basis of safety is that the individual's disability creates a safety problem, the carrier's decision must be based on a 'direct threat' analysis. This concept, ground in the Americans with Disabilities Act, calls on carriers to make an individualized assessment (e.g., as opposed to a generalization or stereotype about what a person with a given disability can or can't do) of the safety threat the person is thought to pose."
"Do you know if that was applied in this case?" asked Zelinger.
"I'm not going to assume that it wasn't, but we're investigating that," said Kowalchuk.
"If the pilot felt there was a safety issue, should there have been another recommendation, instead of 'get off the plane?'" asked Zelinger.
"I don't know. That's what we have to find out," said Kowalchuk. "One of the things that we're pleased with in a situation that we're not happy about is that we were able to get the passenger and his party -- his mother and another attendant -- on the very next flight and get them into Denver."
When a passenger has to leave a flight, an incident report is issued, Kowalchuck said.
"I'm sure that this (incident report) will be reviewed, and I'm sure that there will be consideration given to how this was handled," said Kowalchuk.
Kowalchuk said the pilot was basing his decision off of information in the Frontier flight manual.
"There will be good that comes out of this. If we find out that our manuals need to be modified, they will be modified," said Kowalchuk. "It was unfortunate that it happened, but because it happened everybody's going to learn about this."
Aviation Consultant: Pilot Should Have Consulted Manager
Steve Cowell, an aviation safety consultant, told 7NEWS the pilot should have called airline managers for advice on handling the issue.
"It was completely inappropriate of this captain to escalate ... the situation to the level that he did by calling the police," Cowell said. "It really tells me that this captain did not know how to utilize all the resources available to him."
The Morris family told 7NEWS on Sunday night, when they arrived from Dallas, that they are now planning legal action.
On A Mission To Protect Others' Civil Rights
On Monday, Morris said he has a new mission: making sure what happened to him doesn't happen again.
"Im not after Frontier. Im not trying to get money out of this," said Morris. "Just so the next person doesn't have to go through this. I'll be the last one. We can change policy around and make it better for everyone."
He said he has flown six times with Frontier with no problems whatsoever, and he said he would fly with them again, but the airline's policies and procedures need to change.
"When they were transferring me back to the aisle chair, and 150 eyes were looking at me, it was awful," said Morris.
Attorney Kevin Williams with the Colorado Cross Disability Coalition said the pilot trampled John's civil rights.
Under the Air Carrier's Access Act, airlines must make accommodations for people with disabilities.
"I think it's one of the worst examples of inappropriate conduct by an airline that I have ever heard of," said Williams.
Williams is also a quadriplegic and frequently flies, always with an extra chest restraint.
"It sounds as though the gentleman's disability is very similar to mine, and when I fly I always carry some kind of a belt," said Williams. "I have not ever had a problem. It's very common."
He said if Morris files a complaint, Frontier Airlines could face sanctions from the federal government.
"This needs to wake Frontier up, and all the other airlines as well," said Williams.
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, these are more guidelines concerning disabled passengers:
The Departments disability regulation allows carriers to refuse to provide transportation to any passenger on the basis of safety, as provided in 49 U.S.C. 44902 or 14 CFR 121.533, or to any passenger whose carriage would violate FAA or TSA requirements. See section 382.19 (a). 49 U.S.C 44902 (b) states that carriers may refuse to transport a passenger or property the carrier decides is, or might be, inimical to safety. Additionally, 14 CFR 121.533 (d) states that each pilot in command of an aircraft is, during flight time, in command of the aircraft and crew and is responsible for the safety of the passengers, crew members, cargo, and airplane. Taken together, this means that a carrier has the legal authority to refuse to transport an individual on the basis of safety.However, this does not mean that an airline, including the pilot or other airline staff, can discriminate on the basis of disability. If the Department finds that an airlines decision to refuse to transport an individual with a disability was not related to safety, then it will take action against the carrier. The Department will also review the airlines actions to see if the carrier followed the required process/procedures by providing the person who was refused transportation a written statement of the reason for the refusal within 10 days.
Read the Dept. of Transportation's entire regulation regarding nondiscrimination against the disabled.
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