When American Airlines staff mistook a disabled man’s gait for extreme intoxication, they rerouted the plane, called police, and had him arrested, the man alleges in a new lawsuit.
Michael Mennella, a Florida man, has used prosthetic limbs for six years after he lost both legs below the knee in a car accident. Walking long distances is a challenge, and when he and colleagues booked a flight to a business conference in Las Vegas last August, Mannella requested a wheelchair to help him board the plane, he alleges in a suit filed in Miami-Dade County in May.
But American Airlines did not provide a wheelchair, forcing him to walk onto the plane, he claims. When he hobbled down the plane’s aisle to request ice or aspirin for his aching legs, the flight crew allegedly called him “extremely intoxicated,” rerouted the flight to Texas, and had him arrested in front of his colleagues.
Mannella’s nightmare flight began before boarding, he alleges in his suit. He claims he requested a wheelchair for boarding, as he does on all flights, but was told upon arrival that the airline had no record of his request. Instead, he boarded the plane using his prosthetic limbs, a tiring task that left him sore. But once aboard, he allegedly received a less than friendly welcome from flight crew.
“After hobbling onto the plane, Mr. Mennella removed his prosthetic legs prior to taking his seat, and asked the flight attendant for assistance in placing his prosthetic legs into the overhead compartments,” his suit claims. “She flatly refused to help Mr. Mennella with this simple task, instead leaving it to another passenger who assisted Mr. Mannella in taking his ticketed seat.”
Seeking to sooth his sore legs, Mennella then requested a drink with ice, which is typically offered to first-class passengers like him upon boarding, his suit says. Instead, he was allegedly denied the drink. When he hobbled down the aisle without his prosthetics to ask a different attendant for ice or aspirin, he was allegedly turned away, even after a passenger who was a nurse asked the flight crew for help on Mennella’s behalf.
While Mennella was on his way back to his seat, a crew member allegedly saw his awkward gait and audibly described him to other passengers as “a drunk” and “extremely intoxicated.” To Mennella’s embarrassment, his colleagues overheard the crew member’s claims.
Mennella had not had any alcohol that day. But that did not stop the flight crew from rerouting the plane from Las Vegas to Texas’s Dallas Fort Worth Airport in order to remove him from the flight.
The flight crew called airport security to report Mennella in advance of their landing, an incident report from responding officers shows. “Officers were dispatched to diverted flight due to a passenger that was extremely intoxicated to the point of needing medical attention,” the report, included as an exhibit in Mennella’s lawsuit reads. Airport security also called the FBI in advance of Mennella’s arrival, a police report shows.
Police took Mennella off the plane, in front of his colleagues. But once Mennella was in custody, officers immediately questioned the airline’s claims of an “extremely intoxicated” passenger, the airport security report shows.
“Officers spoke with the individual in question and did not detect any alcoholic odor on him or about his person,” the report reads. “DFW EMS personnel checked out the individual in question and did not have any concerns for his well-being. The dispute apparently stemmed from the individual asking the airline for accommodation due to a medical condition.”
Mannella is suing the airline for unspecified damages, accusing them of defaming his character by calling him a drunk.
On Sunday, the airline said it was investigating Mennella’s complaint.
“American is committed to providing a positive and safe travel experience to all of our customers,” the airline told The Daily Beast in a statement. “We are looking into the concerns raised by Mr. Mennella.”
But when Mennella complained to the airline after the incident last year, customer service told him that he had not been the victim of discrimination over his disability.
“After reviewing this incident, we are confident that discrimination played no part,” the airline told Mennella in an October email. “We have reviewed our procedures for properly resolving questions that may arise from passengers who refuse to stay seated once the ‘fasten seat belt’ sign is illuminated, and continue to request beverage service during turbulence. We also realize that lewd language was used toward our flight attendants by you during this time. We believe our pilot made the correct decision in this situation, and we apologize if you feel otherwise.”
At the bottom of the email was a digital signature that linked to a customer satisfaction form. “How did we do?” the automatic form asked Mennella. “Let us know by taking a short survey here.”