Frontier Airbus A319 in the snow at Denver.

Frontier Airbus A320 in the snow at Denver.

A pilot with Frontier Airlines, denied a quadriplegic passenger from taking his flight stating there were safety concerns. John Morris, 24, had recently flown from Denver to Dallas for a family wedding with no issues. It was when he was trying to make his way home that the disabled passenger and his family were told the captain would not allow him to take his flight.

His mother states that when a flight attendant saw John strapped in, using a seatbelt extension to secure his legs and chest, she stated she would have to have the captain’s approval. When the captain was informed of the situation, he explained that John would not be able to fly. Even after protests from John’s family and other passengers seated around him, the airline called the police and three officers boarded the aircraft. The mother states the police were sympathetic, but did nothing because he was not posing a threat to the plane or passengers. John and his family were then removed by the airline.

“The pilot did what he thought was best for the safety of this disabled person and the party, as well as the airplane, there was no wrong done here,” Frontier spokesman Peter Kowalchuk told 7News in Denver. “I don’t believe that his rights were violated. We’re in the process now of conducting an investigation.” He stated the pilot had concerns that the seatbelt extensions could be used to safely restrain the passenger and made the call to not let him fly. “The pilot is the CEO of that aircraft, if you will,” said Kowalchuk.

John and his family were allowed to take the next flight since the captain had no safety issues. In the Department of Transportation policy on disability and air travel it states (thanks to 7News for finding this):

“If the carrier’s reason for excluding a passenger on the basis of safety is that the individual’s disability creates a safety problem, the carrier’s decision must be based on a ‘direct threat’ analysis. This concept, ground in the Americans with Disabilities Act, calls on carriers to make an individualized assessment (e.g., as opposed to a generalization or stereotype about what a person with a given disability can or can’t do) of the safety threat the person is thought to pose.”

The guidelines also state that a captain is, “in command of the aircraft and crew and is responsible for the safety of the passengers, crew members, cargo, and airplane. Taken together, this means that a carrier has the legal authority to refuse to transport an individual on the basis of safety. However, this does not mean that an airline, including the pilot or other airline staff, can discriminate on the basis of disability. If the Department finds that an airline’s decision to refuse to transport an individual with a disability was not related to safety, then it will take action against the carrier. The Department will also review the airline’s actions to see if the carrier followed the required process/procedures by providing the person who was refused transportation a written statement of the reason for the refusal within 10 days.”

When asked if the airline followed the rules, Frontier’s spokesperson stated, “I’m not going to assume that it wasn’t, but we’re investigating that.” More recently Frontier has released a statement saying, “We’re sorry for the incident and are investigating its handling. In this situation we had a well-intentioned pilot who was seeking to do the right thing to ensure the safety and compliance of all involved.”

It is disturbing to see an airline not treating a person with a disability with the respect they deserve. It is extremely inconsistent for one pilot to deny a person with a disability where two others have no issues at all. It seems like the pilot in question might have had a power trip and instead of connecting with corporate to get a second opinion on the matter, he decided to call the cops. I am still having a hard time finding how John is a bigger safety issue than a child, especially when family is there to care for him. It is bad when one pilot can tarnish the image of an entire brand, but even worse for an airline to back up his actions.

I have posed questions to Frontier Airlines about their policies letting pilots remove passengers with disabilities and the inconsistencies with a captain’s ability to remove passengers. At the time of posting this, I have not heard back from them.

UPDATE: I realized that I wrote my email to the wrong email address and to be fair, they haven’t had the opportunity to reply. Will be trying with the new email soon.

EDITOR-IN-CHIEF & FOUNDER - SEATTLE, WA. David has written, consulted, and presented on multiple topics relating to airlines and travel since 2008. He has been quoted and written for a number of news organizations, including BBC, CNN, NBC News, Bloomberg, and others. He is passionate about sharing the complexities, the benefits, and the fun stuff of the airline business. Email me:
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That’s great PR for an airline with financial problems. Lets see… you have a guy who’s strapped to his seat? How is he a safety problem?

I thought the people who were actual ‘problems’ were strapped to their seats so this doesn’t make sense…

Mark C.

To play devil’s advocate, suppose this was really the FA telling the Captain “I cannot be sure we can evacuate this passenger in a timely manner if there is an emergency”…. and the Captain went with the FA opinion. This I can understand more than anything else, not that it’s much better than whats been told already….. sad deal, no matter what. Does the FA really have to get the Captain’s permission? I’m not a traveler, so my knowledge is limited here.

Hey Mark,

I was trying hard to find the positive side of this story, but was having a difficult time. A good captain should be well-informed before booting someone off their aircraft. John’s mother stated that the police talked to both her and the captain, but the captain never came to talk to them directly. Captain is the total king of the ship and FA’s do what he or she says.


Mark C.

I understand the Captain is the King…. no dispute there, but my thinking was of the FA role in this whole mess. There is no positive side to this sordid affair. The Captain made a bad decision and then compounded it by not coming out of his shell to talk. He might have been backing up the FA concern, but now his throne is in doubt.

As an airline employee myself (flight Attendant) I often marvel at how wrong the press can be when covering an airline story and how they can fuel sympathy for the wrong reasons (Hey it’s easy to pick on the big bad airlines)but this is absoulutely shameful for Frontier and even more shameful for their spokesperson to defend it in anyway! Time to make good Frontier. There are plenty of needy groups and organizations that you can make a good will gesture to, and quick.

Hey Joe,

My blog is all about trying to show that big-bad airline’s aren’t evil. I do not think Frontier is evil in this situation, but they messed up. It appeared they supported the captain at the beginning and I am trying to find their stance on the situation now. More than just putting the family on the next flight out.


Your coverage of airline news is always appreciated by me and others in the industry. It is usually the mainstream press that demonizes the carriers. Your passion for all things “airline” does not go unnoticed.

There are indeed people who simply shouldn’t be on an airplane. This clearly wasn’t the case. This captain was a fool and deserves to be lambasted. Handicapped passengers fly all the time, and if an airline doesn’t have a clear policy regarding that, then there’s a much bigger issue at stake. What about small children (namely UMs)? Elderly non-handicapped passengers? They can be just as immobile in an emergency. The fact that the subsequent captain had no problem further underlines the need for a defined airline/FAA policy or public flogging of that captain.

Here’s the thing. Low cost carriers save money in various ways. One way is staffing employees that support front line employees. My airline has a person who specializes in ADA questions/ problems 24/7 that be connected to a flight crew with a question. I’m going out on a limb and say Frontier doesn’t. Instead of lambasting the Captain (he’s paid to fly airplanes, not know the ADA) perhaps lambaste the company who doesn’t support their front line employees. Low cost airlines serve a purpose but do not expect the same level of service from them. This probably would not have happened on United or American but then again their fares may have been a couple bucks more.

Hey Scott,

I think this goes to a training issue as well. An airline should train their flight crew on what is safe and unsafe and how to handle passengers with disabilities. I think there is also a bigger issue of the captain having so much power over his aircraft. There should be consistency on who should be allowed to fly and not allowed to fly. If someone shouldn’t fly, it should be dealt with at the ticket counter or at the gate and it should be a clear policy. I am glad your airline has something like this.



I absolutely hear what you’re saying but there is a time/ money factor. Do we spend time/ money training pilots to fly airplanes or deal with the ADA? Should we go down the road that says,” the Captain is the final authority, except in matters of interpreting the ADA.” It’s a slippery road. I think if you give flight crews support personnel that have specific training in these areas and the flight crews trust their judgement, then the system works smoother. I’m sure after the resulting lawsuit that this situation will surely lead to, Frontier will be better at this type of situation.

Thing is you cannot stop every situation. The big key is how Frontier will handle this situation vs what the pilot actually did in my opinion.


Lots of angles here, but, if nothing else, this gives all airlines food for thought. What ARE the policies? Are they current? Are they reasonable? Were they created in consultation with these communities in mind? People with physical challenges should be able to fly like everyone else and they want to. It is the right thing to try and make it possible.

As a person with disabilities, I have experienced a mixed bag of both challenges and accommodations. I have a power wheelchair that I was going to take with me on an upcoming flight. When the airlines said they would have to gate-check the wheelchair and strongly pointed out that any damage to the power wheelchair during their handling was NOT their responsibility, I was concerned enough to change my mind about bringing it. Being disabled, I am very low-income, with no insurance yet. I thought about pinning a note to the fabric chair back saying something like, “Dear United employee, my owner can’t afford to repair this chair if it broken in transit, so please take really good care of me.” Still, I just couldn’t take the risk. So now, I will have to use the airport’s wheelchair service – whose employees work for tips – and with 3 different flights, that’s a lot of money in tips (at $5-10 per leg each way, depending on how far they take you or if you need more of their time for bathroom or food/drink stops). Very often disabled people don’t have much money to spare, so having to use a tip-based wheelchair service is emotionally uncomfortable, and financially burdensome. All airports and airlines need better ways to accommodate people with disabilities without making them pay more in order to get around. If I felt my wheelchair was safe and would be handled with respect, not only would I not need to spend money on wheelchair attendants, but I would have the INDEPENDENCE we so often lose as a part of our disability. Now, I’m going to have two very long layovers, and instead of being able to entertain myself by buzzing around the airport window-shopping and dining if needed, I’m going to have to lay down on the hard floor against a cold window at the gate for hours because I can’t sit that long in the gate chairs and there is no place for me to lay down comfortably.


Spent 45 minutes making Frontier reservations to accomodate my mom whose leg was in a brace and can’t walk. Paid for and reserved the best seats they had. When she got there they wouldn’t honor the reservation and put her in the back of the plane in a window seat. When I called Frontier to ask for compensation they said, “Sorry, we won’t do anything for you.” Just seems bizarre that companies spend money on advertising and then completely alienate them so that they never want to do business with them again. Back to Southwest….

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