Albert Rizzi’s flight had been sitting on the tarmac for almost two hours, and his guide dog was getting restless. While Doxy had been waiting patiently under his legs for takeoff, the vibration of the plane was upsetting him, so he started edging out, and a stewardess came by to reprimand Rizzi, telling him to get his dog in hand so the flight could take off. Before he knew what was happening, he was being escorted off the flight, in a blatant act of disability discrimination. Like many frustrated passengers today, he took to Facebook to talk about his poor treatment, and tried to figure out new travel plans while he was far from home in the middle of the night.
What he didn’t expect was that the other passengers on his US Airways Express flight would exit in solidarity with him when they realized what was going on. Failing to understand why Rizzi was being removed by security, and uncomfortable with witnessing an act of discrimination without comment, they deplaned and rallied around their fellow passenger, ultimately taking a bus to their final destination in Long Island.
The 49-year-old frequent flier is used to traveling with Doxy, and unfortunately, this isn’t the first time he’s encountered discrimination over flying with a guide dog. Airline personnel are often unfamiliar with protocol or inconsistent in their application of airline and FAA regulations, along with observing the Americans with Disabilities Act, which guarantees access for Rizzi and Doxy. The pair are used to traveling together, and while US Airways claims Doxy wasn’t under control, other passengers tell a different story, describing a calm, well-trained guide dog who, like other passengers, just wanted to get to the end of the journey.
While access can be denied when service animals are disruptive, and that’s part of the argument the airline is using in this case, the airline may lose this particular fight. 35 angry passengers all witnessed the event, and are happy to testify about what they saw on board the Long Island-bound flight. Meanwhile, Rizzi may be looking into a new preferred airline.
Airline personnel are also claiming they felt “threatened” by the passengers, who began speaking out in support of Rizzi after a flight attendant began harassing him about Doxy. The situation is a remarkable illustration of how a group of people working in solidarity can radically change a situation; by being willing to be inconvenienced, the other passengers on board sent a clear message to US Airways and other airlines that when it comes to disability discrimination, passengers may not be willing to take it sitting down, so to speak.
Rizzi says he’s “humbled” by all the support he received from both fellow passengers on the night of the incident, and around the world in the wake of the spreading news. Here’s hoping US Airways improves its disability and accessibility training, so that no other service dog handlers have to face discrimination on their way to their destinations.
Photo credit: smerikal.