John Morris flew to Dallas last week, but when the 24-year-old quadriplegic tried to come home Sunday, a Frontier pilot ordered him off the plane, saying Morris could not be properly restrained in his seat.
On Monday, neither the Federal Aviation Administration nor Frontier could say what constitutes proper restraint for a passenger with a spinal-cord injury.
Last year on a flight to Chicago, Morris said Frontier staff had the idea to use seat-belt extensions — one belt over his knees, and two holding his chest — to help secure him to his seat.
He arrived at the airport 2 1/2 hours early on Sunday and was told at check-in that the airline would be accommodating.
Morris, who lives in Fort Collins, was one of the last to board the flight to Denver.
“When I got to my seat, I asked the attendants to get the restraints, and they were hesitant,” he said.
Flight attendants asked the pilot about the restraints, but he told them seat-belt extensions were not considered a proper FAA restraint, Morris said.
Airport police soon arrived, Morris said.
“The officer asked the pilot to define proper restraint, but he couldn’t,” Morris said.
Morris was taken off the plane but was allowed to board a later flight to Denver without objections from the pilot.
In an e-mailed statement Monday, Frontier apologized for the incident and said an investigation is underway.
“We are working to clarify our procedures and to ensure all Department of Transportation regulations are met,” the statement said.
The statement called the pilot, who Morris said never spoke to him, well-intentioned and said he “was seeking to do the right thing to ensure the safety and compliance of all involved. We will be taking the steps necessary to ensure clarity on the policies so that this situation is not repeated.”
According to FAA rules, the pilot on a craft has the final say “as to the operation of that aircraft.”
Bill Mosley, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Transportation, said a carrier can 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,” he said. “We rarely hear of a carrier refusing to carry a passenger with a disability on the basis of safety.”
Commercial-airline travel is not uncommon for patients with forms of paralysis, said Craig Hospital spokeswoman Mary Bonner.
More than 5,000 quadriplegic patients have rehabilitated at Craig since 2006, and their treatment has included practice getting in and out of airplane seats, she said.
Craig also has a training program for airlines on how to handle passengers with disabilities, Bonner said.
Morris, who was paralyzed from the neck down in a snowboarding accident five years ago, said he hopes his recent trouble can serve as a learning experience for everyone.
“I just hope it doesn’t happen to anyone else,” he said.
By Caitlin Gibbons
The Denver Post