Disabled United Passenger Forced To Crawl Off Plane

Filed Under: United

CNN featured a story today about a United passenger with cerebral palsy who was forced to crawl down the aisle to exit the plane because there was no aisle wheelchair available to get him to the jetway:

A man returning from a meeting about disabled accessibility policies arrived home with a very personal example of the problem.

D’Arcee Neal, who has cerebral palsy, took a five-hour flight from San Francisco to Washington last week. A mix-up at the gate meant there was no wheelchair to help the 29-year-old off the plane, so he was told to wait for one to be found.


This story hit home for me because my father in law is in a wheelchair and has been in this situation where the tools necessary to get him on and off the plane were not available.

For him, getting around is hard enough. But, when space becomes tight and surfaces are made of metal, the consequence of falling can be much worse than a tumble at home.

This means access to aisle chairs is critical and the mistake to send it away before Mr. Neal deplaned was a big mistake.

The problem was compounded by the fact Mr. Neal needed to use the restroom and United continued telling him to wait for the chair to return.

My family’s travels have had us in similar situations where it seems everyone around us in a position to help doesn’t understand the urgency of the situation.

And I can tell you from experience, solving problems like this rarely leads to the most dignified solution. So, I’m not surprised Mr. Neal was basically forced to crawl off the plane.

To United’s credit, the story only went public because Mr. Neal was happy about the actions the airline took after the incident.

First, a flight attendant onboard reported the issue. That seems obvious but our experience is it’s more common the flight attendants just want to finish their flight and be on their way.

I remember a Delta crew debating whether they needed to write up an incident where my father in law fell in the galley exiting the plane. They ultimately decided not to because, “it wasn’t that bad.”

United customer service also followed up about the incident and apologized. I’m sure the passenger appreciated the $300 compensation. But, what stood out to me is the fact the manager on duty was suspended.

That is the sort of consequence that shows United takes these issues seriously and helps ensure future incidents are handled more carefully.

  1. When my 84 year old mom was still alive and in a wheelchair we asked for a bulkhead seat to make it easier we were told No way
    elites only or pay up to first
    We have never been back since and I am going on 8 million miles with American now
    American does a respectable job as long as you notify them in advance of your need for disabled family members
    This is certainly not an isolated incident just the crawling perhaps

  2. @mike murphy – Thanks for the comment and I understand your point. It’s why I qualified it as “basically forced” in the copy. But, United’s actions left Mr. Neal with the options to sit and relieve himself or crawl off the plane. That isn’t much of a choice to me.

  3. On Sunday evening, our flight arrived early into ATLANTA, but the gate was taken. After waiting 15 minutes or so for the other plane to depart, we finally arrived. The nice German professor traveling back from Vancouver conference was told her wheelchair wasn’t available, and no one in Chicago notified them. Another passenger “Mark Kay Lady” and I decided to help her ourselves, in an attempt to pray she’d make it to her 12:40 bus to Athens.

    I spotted a wheelchair at the next closed desk and in 2 minutes, she had a wheelchair. Why…. would it take UNITED 30 minutes to provide one. Then, as I try to retrieve my bags checked in Chicago I hear the male attendant, “she didn’t look like she needed a wheelchair, she probably walked!”

    I kindly held my tongue, and informed him that two passengers helped HER, I found a chair, brought it down the ramp, and the Mary Kay Lady pushed her, in an attempt to make her Athens bus!”
    As I’m screaming… “Wow, your assholes at UNITED, under my breath!”

    NEVER EVER FLYING UNITED again!! AlexandriaShiryl Moore

  4. @Brent
    “Mike, I find your writing style very difficult to read. Read my mind to figure out why. My comment here adds nothing to the conversation and is utterly valueless.

    I am a troll.”

    Fixed it for ya’.

    Thanks for your contributions to the blog – they’re interesting and relevant (and easy to read, as a matter of fact), so please keep up the good work!

  5. I am familiar with the kind of on/off plane chairs referred to in the article. If a passenger is so disabled that he/she can’t get on/off a plane – or around a plane – without one – he/she should have personal protection when it comes to the “need to go” – urgently or not.

    In terms of other things – I have always found that Delta is great in terms of handicap assistance getting around ATL.

    Still – if one has disabilities – it is always best to leave extra time if things get screwed up.

    My husband is 70 – has MS – and walks slowly – most of the time – using a big leg brace and a cane. We always allow extra time to do things everywhere – including getting on/off planes and getting around airports.

    Also – there are so many seniors and disabled people today. You need extra space/comfort/attention? Pay for something other than basic economy. Airlines can’t afford to give away the extra revenue seats to everyone who has a special request these days. Especially since there are lots of people like us who are willing to pay for it.

  6. I’m a disabled traveler, and I travel fairly often. I don’t require an aisle chair (to assist from the gate to the seat), but do usually require wheelchair assistance to the gate. There are times when the wheelchair assistance doesn’t arrive right away — sometimes requiring waiting for a few minutes after everyone has de-planed, but one does usually arrive. Most of the cabin crew that I’ve have encountered have been incredibly helpful. As the article states, it was a misunderstanding/mistake, and its good to hear United taking ownership of the problem. This case could have ended more badly.

    One incident that I’ve encountered was when I traveled to China earlier this year. I checked-in my scooter, and requested wheelchair assistance. I went through a special VIP terminal. There were lots of problems checking in my scooter/battery. While they held my wife back to try and take care of the matter, they brought me and some other family members to the plane via airport shuttle (I had to climb up/down the airport shuttle stairs — no wheelchair lift). After that, I was expected to climb up the stairs to jet bridge. No consideration was given as to whether I could even climb up these stairs. Sent a complaint letter, no response. At least in the US, you can expect something to get done when complaining.

    @PVBGirl — In the case of the United passenger, there isn’t much else he could have done. The situation was out of his control — United had mistakenly sent the aisle chair away thinking it wasn’t needed anymore. Theres a purpose for the ADA — to protect those with disabilities and to allow equal access. In this case, its to allow equal access to fly. In your comments, you say that disabled people should need to pay for the extra services. In this case, it doesn’t appear the passenger was requesting any special services beyond an aisle chair + wheelchair assistance. Just because you may be willing/able to pay for it doesn’t mean everyone is able to.

    Put it in another way — what if getting onto the plane means that you need to jump 5-ft from the gangway to the plane. For those that aren’t able to, the airline has a service charge to extend the gangway to the plane. That’d be outrageous! Should access be restricted to only those that can afford to pay extra for an aisle chair/wheelchair assistance to get on/off the plane?

  7. Sounds like there were some major communications problems on the part of one or more of the parties involved.

    Per United’s website…

    “Every aircraft with more than 60 seats has an onboard wheelchair. These wheelchairs are specially designed to fit the aisle of our aircraft and may be used to access the lavatory. Our inflight personnel are trained in the use of this wheelchair and will assist you.”

    I wonder what happened to that one… That should have at least gotten him to the lavatory, allowing the wait for a ground based wheelchair to be more comfortable…

    …and also per united.com,

    “Customers who avail themselves for preboarding have priority to have their wheelchair stowed in an onboard closet or space upon request. When requested during preboarding, stowage of the first wheelchair presented takes priority over other customer, crew or company materials. All United aircraft have space to accommodate at least one adult-sized wheelchair.”

  8. Travelinwilly, I agree Brent’s comment was not constructive, but I actually did feel the same way after reading this. I’m not quite sure why, but I think maybe there was too much jumping around between this incident and personal family connections.

    I also think there were some confusing things. Like what is an aisle chair? I guess it’s a wheelchair that’s used to go down the aisles on the plane, but had never heard of that before.

    This sentence is a bit strange:

    “To United’s credit, the story only went public because Mr. Neal was happy about the actions the airline took after the incident.”

    Wouldn’t the story have been just as public if United had not been helpful after the incident?

  9. This is an aisle chair (it’s basically a narrow wheelchair that can fit in an airplane aisle):


    Wash – My comments regarding seating were directed mainly at the notion that any/every elderly person is entitled to special seats on a plane. Whether or not they pay for them. Note that at the airports I frequent – it seems that more and more “AARP seniors” (i.e., anyone over 50) are using provided wheelchairs and airport attendants so they can jump to the head of boarding lines (and claim overhead baggage space ahead of others). Whatever disabilities they have miraculously disappear when they leave the wheelchairs at the plane entrance (I watch them sprint down the aisles in a race to claim overhead bin space).

    Of course – there are people who really are disabled. Some severely (my husband’s disability is minor – he’s just a little slow getting around). Most don’t need special seats. Still – on many flights – I’ve seen people with “good/better/best” seats give them up to disabled veterans. Which is a nice gesture. Anyone is of course free to give up his/her seat to anyone they care to. But I’ve never seen anyone do it for “grandma” (at least on a plane – it’s common in certain parts of the world when it comes to things like subways and buses).

    BTW – I’ve been on flights that have specific pre-booking warnings that they are not handicap accessible. Like flights on small Embraers where you have to enter the plane by climbing up stairs from the tarmac. Think the last time I was on one was on a short flight from ORD to DTW (not sure). Are these flights legal?

    Finally – there are literally millions of people with various continence problems (including a lot of older women). And there are tons of products available to deal with “accidents” and the embarrassing consequences. If someone thinks he/she might possibly have an accident – for whatever reason (like having to stay in your seat for an extended period of time when flying through turbulent weather) – it isn’t hard at all to take appropriate precautions. And – like my late mother taught me – I never pass up a bathroom stop when I’m not sure where/when the next one will be. Perhaps this is a nugget of wisdom that men don’t teach their sons (smile)?

  10. @ Chisness
    You raise good points, and unlike Brent, you point out concise, explicit areas that caused confusion. I’ll admit, in my mind I inserted a “not” before the word “happy” in the sentence “…Mr. Neal was happy…” Because the article as written would lead one’s mind there. Following that was a sentence about a manager’s suspension, sort of incongruous to a happy customer.

    There’s a huge difference between constructive criticism (your comment) and lobbing a throwaway insult (Brent).

    There is so much to this blog that there’s something for everyone, and for those who find nothing? Go read a different blog.

    Anyway, thank you for thoughtful comment.

  11. @PVBGirl:
    Thanks for the clarification. I’d have to agree that people shouldn’t necessarily be entitled to the seat simply because they’re elderly. People should pay for what they need — and not expect a free upgrade to a better seat. However, I believe reasonable accommodations should be made — with limits. Indeed I see many people do the same — request wheelchair access to jump in front of the line. However, some airlines also offer passengers that need a little extra time to board to go first (Southwest comes to mind). People requesting wheelchair assistance when they don’t necessarily need it reminds me to the plethora of people with disability parking placards. For some people, it seems pretty obvious that they need it, while for others its obvious its being abused. However, there are many forms of disability — it can be very difficult to distinguish.

    A few months ago, I was parked at a disabled spot and questioned by a parking meter attendant why I was parked there. She said, that spot is for handicapped, and you don’t look disabled. I had my wheelchair van with a handicap license plate I snapped back at her — what does a disabled person look like? Do I need to drive out on my scooter, or fall onto the ground in order to prove my disability?

    As for certain planes/airports that don’t have a gangway, I’ve been to those. In some cases, if you are unable to make it up, they may also have special trucks that can be used to transport a wheelchair (these may also double as freight trucks — to transport the food/drinks to the plane’s cabin).

    With regards to your question about the legality of the Embraers, and lack of disability access — I just did a quick search for some rules and came across this site (http://airconsumer.ost.dot.gov/publications/horizons.htm). Based on the requirements, it seems that in most cases accommodations should be made available to disabled passengers Specific wording from the site is as follows:
    The carrier may refuse transportation if there are no lifts, boarding chairs or other devices available which can be adapted to enplane the passenger. Airline personnel are not required to carry a mobility-impaired person on or off the aircraft by hand, i.e. to directly pick up the passenger’s body in the arms of one or more airline staffers and carry the individual up or down stairs. Lifts or similar devices are currently required for nearly all flights on aircraft with 19 or more seats at airports with 10,000 or more annual enplanements.

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