The story of a blind man who was taken off a plane and the way his fellow passengers reacted to his treatment has made national headlines after a US Airways flight was canceled on Wednesday night.
Service dogs are allowed on planes, but they must be stowed under a seat during takeoff. Albert Rizzi says his bench seat in the back of the plane didn't make that possible, and although empty seats could have provided an easy solution, he was booted from his Philadelphia to Islip, N.Y. flight.
"He's my lifeline," Rizzi said of his service dog, Doxy. "He's my best buddy. He's my independence."
Rizzi is blind, and Doxy is always at his side; however, he said the experience he had with US Airways staff was among the worst the pair had ever endured.
"My comfort level with my blindness was totally rocked," Rizzi admitted. "I felt like a useless, unappreciated loser."
After 45 minutes on the tarmac, Doxy became agitated and was lying in the aisle. That's when the flight attendant became aggressive, according to Rizzi.
"The flight attendant comes over and says, 'I need you to get that dog stowed again,'" he recalled. "She comes back and gets in my face again. 'I told you that dog needs to be under a seat or we are not taking off.'"
Next thing Rizzi knew, he and Doxy were back at the gate -- but not before passengers stood up for him. One of the passengers told Fox 9 News he was so concerned about Rizzi that even before the revolt took place, he was ready to get off the plane, rent a car and drive Rizzi and Doxy to New York himself.
Yet, the passengers' version of events doesn't mesh with the airline's rendition. In a statement, US Airways defended its decision. The company's response can be read in full below.
US Airways transports more than 80 million customers each year and ensures that all customers, including those with disabilities, are treated with dignity and respect. We're particularly sensitive to those customers who travel with service animals and we partner with Assistance Dogs International (ADI), an organization that trains and places assistance dogs around the world. US Airways employees volunteer to travel with and work with assistance dogs in training to help them prepare for travel with disabled partners. Over the past 10 years, US Airways employees have participated in transports everywhere from California to Croatia.
In this instance, Mr. Rizzi became disruptive and refused to comply with crew member instructions when the flight attendant asked him to secure his service dog at his feet. As a result of his disruptive behavior, the crew returned to the gate and removed Mr. Rizzi and service dog from the flight. The flight eventually canceled and we transported Mr. Rizzi, his service dog, and the rest of our passengers on the flight to ISP by bus.
We apologize to the customers of the flight for the inconvenience. We are continuing to investigate the incident.
When Fox 9 News turned to Jennifer Dunnam, president for the National Federation of the Blind in Minnesota, to get her take on the incident, she admitted she "would not be surprised if this story was completely true."
"It just keeps coming up over and over," she explained.
According to Dunnam, guide dogs get leeway in the airport and on planes, but she says more education is needed to protect those using service dogs.
"There have been strides made, but there have been instances where people's lack of knowledge about blindness have come into play," she said.
As for Rizzi, he said he is just grateful the other passengers had his back.
"When I heard those people coming off the plane saying what they said, I felt like a million dollars and more humble than I have ever felt in my entire life," he said.