A Flight-Delay Excuse I'd Never Heard Before

I have heard a lot of reasons for planes being delayed, but this was a new one. My Delta flight out of JFK was just about to push back from the gate when the captain made an announcement. He explained that there is a wheelchair on board every flight, and the one on this plane had had a malfunction – the handle broke, he said – which made it unusable. It didn’t seem to matter that no passengers on the flight had needed a wheelchair to board: the plane couldn’t take off, he said, until a replacement was brought on board.

How long could that possibly take? JFK is a big airport; there had to be lots of wheelchairs around.

The captain kept coming back onto the P.A. system to announce the progress. The ground crew found another chair, but it didn’t fit this plane. The ground crew heard of another plane nearby with a spare wheelchair, but that turned out to not be true.

The captain and the rest of the crew handled the delay about as well as it could be handled, but a few people got off the plane rather than keep waiting. Someone asked one flight attendant if the wheelchair was really so vital: couldn’t someone grant a dispensation to allow the flight to take off without it?

The flight attendant replied, a bit sternly, that the Americans With Disabilities Act expressly forbade the plane from taking off without the wheelchair. I know the A.D.A. hasn’t been a big winner in producing jobs for disabled workers and that it keeps doctors from treating disabled patients, but I didn’t know it could also ground a plane even if there are no disabled people on board. (I am not sure the flight attendant was 100% accurate; I don’t see a mention of this regulation in the A.D.A.)

Finally, 2.5 hours after our expected takeoff, Delta came up with another wheelchair that fit, and we headed for the runway.

On the bright side: the flight had wi-fi, so I was able to write this blog post at 35,000 feet, as we hurtled westward through the pitch-black sky.

Front Ranger

Check out the This American Life podcast called Crybabies. Lots of unintended consequences of the ADA.

We're all handicapped in one way or another. Some folks just have it a little bit worse. But applying a bandaid that only fits 1% of the customers to the rest of us results in more waste than benefit.

I'm always amazed at who can get a blue parking tag in this country. I see fully-abled people getting out of handicapped badged vehicles at Wal-Mart all the time.

hilzoy fangirl

If an otherwise able-bodied person were to get sick or injured on the plane, it could be hard to remove them without a wheelchair. Delta could rationally believe that the costs associated with such a situation would be too expensive to warrant the risk, especially if the delay will not impose significant costs on the airline.

Arthur S.

The regulation is contained in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Title 14 (Aeronautics and Space), Chapter II--Office of the Secretary, Department of Transportation (Aviation Proceedings), Part 382 (Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Disability in Air Travel).

Section 382.65 sets forth the requirements concerning on-board wheelchairs, and states in relevant part: As a carrier, you must equip aircraft that have more than 60 passenger seats, and that have an accessible lavatory (whether or not
having such a lavatory is required by Sec. 382.63 of this part) with an on-board wheelchair.

Irish NYC

I had a similarly bizarre issue on a domestic flight in the US a couple of years ago. The captain, in an embarrassed voice told us that the ashtray in the cockpit was missing, and they were required by law to have it installed or the flight could not depart.

Never mind that smoking has long since vanished on most commercial flights - the rules are still in place and we were kept on the ground for 30 minutes while somebody went off to hunt for the replacement!

The rule probably made sense back when smoking was permitted since a safe place would be needed to extinguish cigarettes on board but it certainly left all of the passengers with very confused looks on their faces...


I'd think whatever medical personnel would be waiting for a plane with a sick or injured person on board would bring their own stretchers or the like, though.


I was on a plane where we waited at the gate for 45 minuets because a mechanic had to confirm that the hot water in the aft bathroom did not work.


Your reasoning is similar to saying one doesn't need a first aid kit because they're not hurt right now. The wheelchair is a little insurance policy for accidents and unforeseen circumstances (for instance: fatigue, motion sickness, or an injured ankle). Disabled people aren't the reason for wheelchairs on airlines; if you're disabled an need and require a wheelchair for mobility, chances seem likely you're not relying on the airline company to provide you with one.

As an economist, Mr. Dubner, I would expect a little deeper interpretation than a two-hour inconvenience.


2.5 hours delay on the ground is a significant cost to the airline and to the scores of passengers delayed. If the plane lands and someone has difficulty getting off he could be assisted by human beings or a wheelchair at the landing terminal. What if two people need assistance and their is only one chair? One disabled person would still be inconvenienced.


2 hours? I can see using the wheelchair as an excuse. Maybe there was something wrong with the plane and they did not want to upset passengers, or the Dunkin Donuts ran out of the pilot's favorite snack. Either way, I'd bet good money there was something else going on.

Drill-Baby-Drill Drill Team

MacGyver would have fixed the Wheelchair handle in a jiffy with Duct Tape or even Tooth Paste.

What happened to Yankee Ingenuity? It seems to take a back seat to Ben the Bureaucrat.


#s 2 and 7 are correct. #1 had better hope his own ability is permanent. (I'm not disabled -- so far -- but I have been temporarily disabled and I know people who are permanently so.)


I think the focus on ADA is misplaced here. I'm not familiar with the ADA rules as they relate to airframes, so I can't say whether or not this was in fact an ADA issue or not. But, I can tell you that there are any number of small, seemingly innocuous things that can prevent a flight from taking off. For example, if there is a seat on the aircraft that will not fully return to the upright position (close don't count), you're not going anywhere until it's fixed. This has nothing to do with the ADA. The fact of the matter is, commercial operators (Part 121) have a sterling safety record and they're are zealous in protecting it - their business depends on it. As the freakonomics folks have pointed out before, one accident and all of a sudden folks develop very irrational fears of engines falling off wings. So, to maintain that safety record the airlines put a lot of effort into making sure their employees sweat the small stuff. From their vantage point, their is no unimportant safety regulation.


John Cutts

I went to China in June and about 2 hours into the 16 hour leg from LA to Tokyo a food service cart fell over on one of the flight attendant's ankles.You could hear her scream anywhere in the plane.I'm pretty sure it broke her ankle but we were already over the Pacific so she toughed it out until we landed where they wheeled her out on the plane's onboard wheelchair.No one else on the plane was disabled.


Speaking of ridiculous flight delay excuses, I was on an NWA flight out of MSP where, after the plane had pulled onto the taxi way, an announcement came over the PA that the pilot from the previous flight had left his glasses on board. Our pilot explained that the forgetful pilot could not fly without his glasses. Our plane headed to a deserted part of the airfield and waited 30 minutes for a portable jet way (truck with stairway) to allow a mechanic to come aboard and grab the glasses. It then took another 15 minutes to get back in the departure queue. Total waste of NWA's fuel and passengers' time.


This is ridiculous. If someone needs to be carried, people will volunteer. I was on a hike on the appalacian trail where someone broke their leg and I saw total strangers (including me) volunteer carry her out for over a mile of mountain trail, staying with her until an ambulance could come.

Not sure whether the ridiculousness here is the ADA or just a feature of Federal Aeronautics regulations, which I've heard do require absolutely fidelity to every detail. It's quite possible that the ADA requires accomodations for disabled flight passengers but the aeronautics requirements prevent any plane from taking off unless it complies with the absolute letter of the law. Does anyone know?


you really nailed the hidden side of this.


When I read this article I thought that it had both good things and bad things. Honestly, its hard to believe that a wheel chair delayed the flight 2.5 hours. But, if you start looking at the marginal costs and benefits of Delta Airlines in this situation, you can probably understand why they did it.

In the United States it is very well known that people sue others for anything. So, when it comes to their marginal costs they could have been thinking of this: would we prefer to run the risk that something happens to a passenger on board and a wheel chair is needed but we don't have one? What if the passenger gets more injured because a delay was caused transporting him or her because there was no wheel chair? Well, Delta could probably get sued in this situation, and not only get sued and loosing money, but getting a bad reputation (bad rep=loose customers=less profit). On the other hand, their marginal benefit of leaving without the wheel chair is that they wouldn't have wasted 2.5 hours.

What would you do if you were Delta Airlines?...
I would probably do the same as they did, even though it would upset several customers. But, I think its better too make a couple of customers angry than to have the company destroyed by a law suit.

A solution to if this happens again is to always carry an extra wheel chair. If something goes wrong, try to explain the passengers nicely the situation, and give them a compensation afterwards so they use Delta again.



If the airline knows it's a regulation, then why wait for the last minute to get another wheelchair? I thought flight attendants checked for order before letting people board the plane. Both the airline and the passengers know that time is money. More importantly, if the airline waits to change a wheel chair, what's next, late check ups on airplane wheels? When I read this article, the first thing that came to my mind was that Delta had forgotten to replace the wheel chair. And if this is true, which I hope isn't, might they forget to check for errors before take off? The fact that they had to make their customers wait for a wheelchair, instead of being prepared, makes people question its quality. I also, find it weird that Delta lasted 2.5 hours to get a wheel chair, especially in an airport like JFK.

doctor dog

Front Ranger says:

> I'm always amazed at who can get a blue parking tag in
> this country. I see fully-abled people getting out of
> handicapped badged vehicles at Wal-Mart all the time.

i'm always amazed that people have to be reminded that not all disabilities are visible. many people who appear fully-abled have asthma, so they can't walk very far.

just a gentle reminder that what you see isn't always what you think it is.


My flight from Indy to LGA on Delta last week was delayed because there were no beverage carts. We had to wait for another flight to come in and take their beverage carts. I believe I can speak for the other passengers (mostly because I heard many groan) when we all would have been fine with no beverage cart for a 90 minute flight.