Disabled man says airline denied his crucial medical device: 'People in wheelchairs should be able to fly'

A disabled writer from Austin, Texas says Southwest Airlines is banning his medical device, which is necessary for him to fly. (Photo: Facebook/Jon Morrow)
A disabled writer from Austin, Texas says Southwest Airlines is banning his medical device, which is necessary for him to fly. (Photo: Facebook/Jon Morrow)

A severely disabled man can’t board his upcoming Southwest Airlines flight with a crucial medical device his doctor recommended.

Jon Morrow, 36, a blogger and public speaker in Austin, Texas, was born with Spinal Muscular Atrophy, a genetic disorder damaged his ability to move. Morrow has used a wheelchair since the age of 4 but his progressive condition has left him motionless, except for facial movement. Morrow now steers his wheelchair with a special tube that utilizes the pressure of his breath.

As a public speaker and writer, Morrow travels the country giving presentations on blogging, accompanied by personal caregivers whom he pays out of pocket. On his doctor’s recommendation, Morrow recently purchased a $15,000 device called an Eagle Lift by Australian company Haycomp, which smoothly transfers him from his wheelchair to an airplane seat, and then is stored under the plane.

Morrow’s handlers are trained and licensed to use the device — all he needs is approval to bring it onboard.

He was apprehensive booking his Tuesday flight to Florida where he’s scheduled to give a keynote speech.

“I knew there was a high likelihood I would battle with Southwest because they’ve said no before,” Morrow tells Yahoo Lifestyle. Last year, for a trip to San Diego to speak to a 7,000-person crowd, Southwest denied the device (Morrow switched to American Airlines, which allowed it). However, given Southwest’s abundance of direct flights and the airline’s credit card perk that allows his care team to fly free-of-charge, he made reservations for himself and two caretakers.

Morrow notated the device via a “Special assistance” online link and waited for a response. On May 8, he followed up on Twitter.

“You are able to use your Eagle Lift onboard,” a customer service agent responded in chat transcripts Morrow shared with Yahoo Lifestyle. “Please know that you will have to let the Gate Agent know that you have two people to assist you in transferring onto the aircraft. Also, we recommend that you store your Eagle Lift in the overhead bin. I hope this clarifies any confusion you may have!”

However, Morrow then received a message from another representative: “I was reviewing this interaction today and realized that [you were provided] incorrect information regarding the ability to use your Eagle Lift when traveling with us. I can see you received a reply from us on this topic earlier this year where we stated you would be unable to use the device when traveling with us. That is still the case at this point, and I am very sorry I do not have a more positive update for you at this time. Further, I sincerely apologize for the lack of consistent information...”

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Air Carrier Access Act states that airlines can’t refuse people with disabilities, except for passengers who are “inimical to the safety of the flight.”

In chat transcripts, Morrow was told that, per the Code of Federal Regulations, airlines “are not required to make modifications that would constitute an undue burden or would fundamentally alter your program” or would disrupt boarding processes. There was not enough time for Morrow to use and stow the device, said a rep, but that airline staff — who are not medically trained — would assist.

On Saturday, Morrow wrote on Facebook, “Makes me sad to say this, but Southwest Airlines is officially discriminating against severely disabled passengers in wheelchairs. They don't say you can't fly. That would be blatantly illegal. Instead, they make it impossible for you to safely board the plane...

“...Mind you, this is a device that is standard operating procedure for all passengers in wheelchairs outside the US,” wrote Morrow. “It's been used safely on thousands of flights. I'm also providing the Eagle and trained personnel at MY expense. Still they refuse. They dig in their heels. They tell me the decision cannot be appealed further. So, here I am, appealing to Facebook. Not only for myself, but for everyone else who needs this device. People who cannot transfer themselves should not be manhandled by firefighters. They should be able to use a device built and tested for that exact purpose, recognized worldwide for its safety and efficiency. I'm making it as easy as I can for them. But they won't do it the easy way. So let's do it the hard way. People in wheelchairs should be able to fly. Let's take this one small step toward making it happen and approve my flight.”

Morrow plans to arrive at Austin Bergstrom International Airport for a Tuesday flight with his two nurses and his Eagle Lift. “Southwest hasn’t changed its rule, however I booked backup tickets on American Airlines in case things don’t go well,” Morrow tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “My device is not a hassle, but I am the first person to force the issue.”

The Department of Transportation did not return a request for comment in time for publication. An airline spokesperson tells Yahoo Lifestyle:

“Southwest Airlines takes pride in making air travel accessible to customers who require assistance when flying with us and is committed to full compliance with the regulations under the Air Carrier Access Act. In this instance, the customer was informed that we do not have boarding procedures for the safe use of the device nor do our employees have training for storage of the device. This final decision was made after reviewing the device’s specifications and the requirements for transporting it and the Customer safely. However, we have been in contact with the manufacturer of this device to learn more about it. We remain committed to extending our legendary Southwest Hospitality to every Customer who chooses to fly with us, and we take great measures to comply with all federal accessibility requirements.”

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