HONOLULU (CN) - Delta Air Lines forced a wheelchair-bound passenger to crawl onto and off its planes and across tarmacs, while Delta employees, "fearful of liability," watched, a man claims in court.
D. Baraka Kanaan, of Maui, sued Delta Air Lines in Federal Court.
Kanaan claims Delta's "outrageous conduct occurred not once, but twice."
Kanaan is a former professor of philosophy at California State University and now head of the nonprofit Lovelution Foundation, an education group.
Kanaan claims the airline humiliated him in July 2012 as he traveled from Maui to Massachusetts.
Kanaan is unable to walk due to paraparesis - partial loss of voluntary motor function in the pelvic limbs - caused by severe spinal injuries he suffered in a 2000 car accident.
"On July 26, 2012, one week before a scheduled spinal fusion operation, Mr. Kanaan was traveling from Maui to Nantucket, Massachusetts, on a series of Delta airlines flights, to participate in a conference," the complaint states.
After pointing out that Delta is the second-largest airline in the United States, with $36.6 billion in reported revenue in 2012 and profits of $1 billion, Kanaan continues: "As he always does when he flies and despite the fact that he is not required to do so, Mr. Kanaan called several weeks in advance of his flight and spoke to a customer service representative with Delta to confirm that he is disabled, that he would be traveling with his own wheelchair, and that he required the use of an aisle chair and lift to access the aircraft because he cannot walk.
"The representative assured him that all was noted in the company's travel database, and that he would be received and given reasonable accommodation for his disability.
But the scheduled flight was canceled due to weather, and Kanaan was rescheduled for a flight leaving the next day, July 27.
"Upon his arrival at Nantucket Airport, Mr. Kanaan was informed by one of the flight attendants that the airline did not have the required safety equipment, an 'aisle chair' to bring him from his seat to the airplane door; nor did they have a lift to go down the stairs from the aircraft to the tarmac to retrieve his wheelchair," the complaint states.
"The Airline Carrier Access Act ('ACAA') and applicable federal regulations require airlines to have such equipment available in order to accommodate disabled passengers such as Mr. Kanaan.
"Delta did not.
"When Mr. Kanaan asked what his options were, the flight attendant responded, 'I don't know, but we can't get you off the plane.' Despite a clearly visible lift at an adjacent gate, Mr. Kanaan was forced to crawl down the aisle of the airplane, down the stairs of the aircraft, and across the tarmac to his wheelchair without any assistance from the crew or the use of any mandated safety equipment.
"In his nicest suit, he crawled hand over hand through the main cabin and down a narrow flight of stairs and across the tarmac to his wheelchair. There were a great number of people watching, and the experience caused Mr. Kanaan great physical and emotional suffering.
"During this entire shameful incident, no efforts were made to secure the lift or an aisle chair from Jet Blue or any other airline operating in the airport. And, purportedly fearful of liability, the flight crew refused to assist Mr. Kanaan, instead serving as spectators themselves."
Once in his wheelchair and after having made it to the airport terminal, Kanaan made a phone call to Delta's disability desk to file a formal complaint.
Kanaan claims he was "insultingly" offered a $100 voucher, assured that it would not happen again, and that Delta would have the equipment to move him on his return trip to Maui on July 29.
"However, two days later, Mr. Kanaan's return flight, Flight 4245, was again delayed by defendants," the complaint states. "And, when boarding formally began, he was again informed that the necessary safety equipment, an aisle chair and a lift, were unavailable, but that they 'could provide a piece of cardboard to put down so that his clothes wouldn't get dirty.' ...
"Thus, Mr. Kanaan was again forced to crawl across the tarmac, up the stairs of the aircraft, down the aisle, and hoist himself into his seat on the aircraft, which was a physically painful experience for Mr. Kanaan. In the process he felt his spine twist and pull in awkward manners."
And once again, Kanaan claims: "As he did upon his arrival in Nantucket, Mr. Kanaan again observed a lift used to lower and raise disabled passengers at an adjacent gate only a few hundred feet away."
When Kanaan got home, he says, he underwent a spinal cord fusion operation that was delayed due to injuries he said he suffered from the two crawling incidents.
While recovering in the hospital, he again complained to Delta, and another disability desk representative apologized and offered him 25,000 sky miles, Kanaan claims.
Kanaan claims he would "presumably" be left to bear the risk of a repeat occurrence, so he declined the offer and asked for a more "equitable" one.
He says he was referred to Delta headquarters, where a third representative offered him fewer compensatory sky miles and hung up on him when he was still dissatisfied.
Kanaan claims that the Department of Transportation has investigated numerous incidents in which Delta mistreated disabled passengers, and was fined millions of dollars for it.
He claims that Delta "led the airline industry" in 2009 with 2,377 disability-related complaints, and that "Delta privately refuses to 'make it right' when not in the direct glare of the public spotlight."
Kanaan says he filed a separate complaint with the FAA in 2012, after getting out of the hospital, but has heard nothing from them.
He seeks compensatory, treble and punitive damages for violations of the Air Carrier Access Act, the Americans With Disabilities Act, negligence, emotional distress and discrimination.
He is represented by Richard Holcomb of Honolulu.
Delta's slogan is "Delta is ready when you are."