A reader brought a story to my attention about a traveler with a disability who was denied boarding on a Virgin Atlantic flight. While I can only imagine how frustrating this must have been, was this a case of discrimination, or just inconsistent enforcement of published policies?
Virgin Atlantic denies traveler boarding over mobility
This incident involves a woman who was intending to fly on Wednesday, June 8, 2022, from New York to London on Virgin Atlantic. Virgin Atlantic ended up denying her boarding because she’d be unable to self evacuate in the event of an emergency. Here’s a summary of what the traveler describes:
- The traveler arrived at the Virgin Atlantic check-in counter at JFK with her mother, to check-in for her flight to LHR; the ticket had been purchased through Delta, which is a joint venture partner
- When the traveler advised that she was traveling alone, several agents got involved, and one asked if she’d be able to self evacuate in the event of an emergency, which she had never been asked before
- They asked if the traveler could walk, use the restroom, and/or self evacuate, and she explained that she couldn’t walk or self evacuate, but could use the restroom
- A manager eventually informed the traveler that she’d be unable to fly alone if she couldn’t self evacuate
- She explained to the manager that she had just flown Delta alone a couple of weeks prior without issue
- In an effort to find a solution, the Virgin Atlantic employees asked if the traveler’s mother could fly with her
- The traveler asked for this policy in writing, and the Virgin Atlantic employees weren’t able to provide it
Discrimination or inconsistent enforcement?
The traveler is stating that Virgin Atlantic discriminated against her, and that the airline needs to be held accountable. Let me start by saying that I can only imagine how frustrating this must have been for the traveler, and even how embarrassing it can be to be singled out and be denied boarding when you feel like you’re being discriminated against.
Travel is stressful enough for people under normal circumstances, let alone when you have to deal with matters like this. That sucks, plain and simple, especially when you’ve flown alone in the past without issue.
So, were the Virgin Atlantic representatives acting completely out of line, or what happened here?
It appears that Delta and Virgin Atlantic both do have published policies regarding this, stating that you may be denied boarding if you’re unable to self evacuate. And this isn’t just some fine print in the contract of carriage, but in both cases it’s on the pages about travelers requiring special assistance.
Here’s Virgin Atlantic’s published policy:
“If you would have severe difficulties in emergency situations we may ask you to travel with a safety assistant.”
Meanwhile here’s Delta’s published policy:
At the airport on the day of departure, Delta may require that you arrange for a personal care assistant or safety assistant to accompany you in the following circumstances:
– When you are unable to comprehend or respond to safety related instructions
– When you have both a hearing and vision disability that prevents you from establishing a means of communication with Delta personnel sufficient to receive the safety briefing
– When you have a mobility disability that physically prevents you from assisting in your own evacuation during an emergency
With that in mind, a few thoughts:
- While this puts people with disabilities in a difficult (and very costly) situation, from a safety perspective I can understand the logic that those who can’t self evacuate may be required to have someone travel with them who can assist them in the event of an evacuation
- The language around this with both Delta and Virgin Atlantic is open-ended, as the airlines saying that they “may” require you to arrange a personal care assistant gives employees a lot of discretion; clearly there’s a lot of inconsistency, because the traveler had no issues on previous flights
- The Virgin Atlantic agents should have been able to point to this policy in writing, which they allegedly weren’t able to do
Personally I don’t think the Virgin Atlantic employees were “discriminating” against the traveler, in the sense that they were just trying to follow the company’s policy, which has merit in terms of safety.
That doesn’t change the fact that this is a super complicated matter, and that the inconsistency with enforcement is an issue. Travelers shouldn’t be booking tickets and then rolling the dice as to whether or not they’ll be able to fly, based on the decision of an individual employee. Furthermore, the employees should have been able to point to this policy in writing, because it is published on both carriers’ websites.
Virgin Atlantic denied boarding to a traveler who wouldn’t have been able to self evacuate. This is no doubt a complicated matter, and sums up the inconsistency of policy enforcement in the airline industry.
What do you make of this incident — was Virgin Atlantic out of line?