Wheelchair-using woman forced to crawl onto plane, sues American Airlines

Theresa Purcell

SAN DIEGO (KHON) – A wheelchair-using woman who was forced to crawl onto a plane officially filed a lawsuit Friday morning against American Airlines.

Theresa Purcell was taking a commuter flight from San Diego when the agent at the gate told her it was too late to set up a ramp so she can board.

Instead, Purcell had to get off her wheelchair and crawl all the way to her seat.

“So when I asked that I can’t walk up on the stairs, and then she was like, so how you going get on the plane then? And I was like, oh wow,” said Purcell. “I crawled up onto the steps. I crawled into the plane. There was no other way for me to get on the plane so I crawled up to the plane.”

The airline has apologized for the incident. In part, the statement issued by Christy Garden, DOT Liaison, Customer Relations, American Airlines/US Airways Corporate Office said:

On behalf of US Airways and American Airlines, please accept our apologies for the difficulties Ms. Purcell experienced with her request for level entry boarding. It is imperative to provide essential care and to have a sensitive approach when assisting our passengers who have special needs.

“According to CFR 14 Part 382, carriers must train employees with respect to awareness and appropriate responses to passengers with a disability, including persons with physical, sensory, mental and emotional disabilities, including how to distinguish among the differing abilities of individuals with a disability. Additionally, airlines must promptly provide assistance requested by a customer with a disability in enplaning and deplaning. This assistance must include, as needed, the services of personnel and the use of ground wheelchairs, accessible motorized carts, boarding wheelchairs, and/or on-board wheelchairs, and ramps or mechanical lifts.

“We regret that a ramp was not requested so Ms. Purcell wold be able to board the aircraft without going up the stairs, assistance should should have been provided shortly thereafter. Based on what you’ve shared, it appears our employees didn’t provide the the attentive, courteous and professional service we expect as a company. I understand how the way you are treated can affect your impression of our” airline and sympathize with your displeasure.

“After review of the facts, American Airlines admits they were in violation of CFR 14 Part 382 for not having provided level entry boarding as requested.

But Purcell says that’s not enough. She wants to make sure nothing like this ever happens again.

Through the lawsuit, she and her attorney feel they could teach American Airlines a lesson.

“I was humiliated. It was embarrassing to have 50-something people watch you crawl into a plane,” Purcell said.

Purcell, a Farrington High school graduate, has a bone disease that keeps her in a wheelchair. She’s a hip-hop artist who flies all the time and makes requests regularly to have a ramp or a wheelchair lift to help her board the plane.

This was the first time she had flown American Airlines. She says she let them know ahead of time that she would need a ramp and was shocked when they told her it was too late to do it.

“There was a ramp right next to the plane and she was like, ‘Oh, it’s too late,’ so I was like ‘Okay, so we can’t just, the ramp is right there. Can’t you guys just push it right here so I can get on?’ and she’s like, ‘Oh, I’m sorry,” Purcell said.

Purcell’s attorney wrote a letter asking for compensation and the airline responded by saying:

Thank you for your letter of demand on behalf of Theresa Purcell. American Airlines will not be issuing any compensation for your client’s injuries claim.

“You wouldn’t want to watch your family member crawl on to a plane. I mean, come on, this is America,” Purcell said. “I’m just saying there’s always a way.”

She still flies, although never again with American Airlines, but says the incident keeps haunting her.

“Is today another time where I have to climb onto an airplane again, where all these people have to watch me embarrass myself again, and I gotta be there, hoping please, I hope I never see these people again?” Purcell said.

The lawsuit asks for general damages in excess of the jurisdictional minimum of $75,000 exclusive of interests and cost, as well as punitive and other damages.

We’ve reached out to American Airlines but have not heard back.

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