Edna man claims airline discriminated against him

Karn Dhingra By Karn Dhingra

Feb. 14, 2017 at 10:57 p.m.

   CONTRIBUTED PHOTO for The Victoria Advocate

EDNA - Matthew Garza said he felt the sting of discrimination for the first time in his life on a flight from Houston to Detroit.

Feelings of embarrassment and humiliation overcame Garza when a flight attendant asked him to move from his emergency row seat on a Jan. 31 Spirit Airlines flight.

"I don't think he (the flight attendant) would have asked me to move if I had been wearing pants," said Garza, who was wearing shorts on the flight. "He asked me to move because of my prosthetic leg."

However, a Spirit Airlines official said the company did not intend to discriminate against Garza and was only following federal regulations to ensure the safety of passengers and its flight crew.

Garza, 25, was headed from Houston to Michigan with his girlfriend, Karlie Gratz, 23, for a few weeks to help her pack and move to the Crossroads.

When he was 9, Garza's leg was amputated because of a lawnmower accident he suffered five years earlier.

"My leg couldn't be saved," he said.

Garza said he always paid extra to purchase an emergency row ticket for the extra legroom when he could to give his 6-foot-2, 250-pound frame a little more comfort on the airline's crammed seats.

Outside of being willing and able to open the plane's emergency door, Garza said he could not find any information on Spirit's website about additional requirements for passengers seated in an emergency exit row.

"They were rude, and the way they went about it is what hurt most," Garza, said. "They asked me to move with everybody on the flight looking at us."

Garza, who played football, baseball, basketball and competed in shot put and discus in high school, said he was more than capable of removing an airplane door in case of an emergency even though he walks with a slight limp.

"He didn't even ask me if I could perform the task," Garza said.

Stephen Schuler, a spokesman for Spirit Airlines, said in an email to the Advocate that the airline does not tolerate discrimination in any form.

"We apologize for any inconvenience to Mr. Garza; however, our crew members must follow strict federal regulations outlining passenger requirements to sit in the exit row," Schuler wrote. "These requirements are in place to ensure the safety of all passengers and crew on board."

The crew on Garza's flight were concerned when they noticed he was limping because he had a prosthetic leg, Schuler wrote.

"Our agents and crew must also assess the suitability of each customer to perform the required functions to sit in this row through observation," he wrote, adding that the federal regulations require customers to be able to move expeditiously when sitting in the exit row.

According to the Federal Aviation Administration's website, the guidelines to sit in an exit row state that the passenger "must be physically capable and willing to perform emergency actions when seated in emergency or exit rows. If you are not, ask for another seat. Thoroughly familiarize yourself with the emergency evacuation techniques outlined on the written safety instructions. Ask questions if instructions are unclear."

Garza said the airline had offered him free drinks, which he declined, and a refund on the difference between the higher priced emergency exit row seats after they moved him and his girlfriend to the back of the plane.

Garza said Spirit only offered a full refund after he contacted television news stations in Detroit and Houston.

Schuler wrote that Garza also received two round-trip vouchers for future travel.

John Griffin, a Victoria attorney and disability rights advocate, said a passenger must be able and willing to comply with the commands of the flight staff to open the airplane door in case of an emergency.

"The disability cannot interfere with a person's ability to perform," Griffin said.

Griffin said he had never thought about the scenario until recently, when he had noticed a man with a prosthetic leg sitting in the emergency row on a recent Texas Sky flight he took from Victoria to Houston.

"First I saw him hop through, then he fitted his prosthetic in Victoria, and you could not tell he had a prosthetic leg once he had gone through security," Griffin said. "On the plane, that gentleman sat in the exit row, and I, like many Americans, probably would say, 'Well, how is that person in an exit row?"

Griffin said the more he thought about it, the more he accepted the notion that certain disabled passengers could perform emergency row duties.

"There's nothing in the exit row that he couldn't do, that I couldn't do," said Griffin. "He was younger than I am and more fit than I am."

Garza said before the Spirit Airlines experience, he never really thought about discrimination.

"It's definitely made me more conscious of theses issues and the discrimination that vets and other groups of people face every day," Garza said.



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