NEW YORK — Usually airline passengers side with flight attendants when it comes to safety, but in the case of a US Airways flight Wednesday night, passengers rallied around a blind man and his guide dog and disembarked en masse.
All 35 passengers on US Airways Flight 4384 walked off the plane after Albert Rizzi, a blind man from Long Island, and his dog, Doxy, were escorted off the flight after a heated exchange between Rizzi and a flight attendant about where his dog was placed, according to Rizzi.
Although he was first to arrive on the tarmac for the flight from Philadelphia International Airport to MacArthur Airport on Long Island, Rizzi said he and his dog were the last to be seated on the small plane. He was seated in the middle of the back row looking onto the aisle with no seat in front of him for Doxy to lay under.
Shortly after boarding, Rizzi said a flight attendant told him the dog would need to go under a seat for safety reasons.
Several passengers in Rizzi’s row offered to have the dog lay under their seats, and he was placed under the seat of the woman to his left, according to Rizzi.
The plane was then delayed nearly two hours. While the plane was sitting on the runway, Doxy got up to reposition himself a few times, ending up under Rizzi’s seat against the back of the plane, Rizzi said.
The flight attendant asked Rizzi to control his dog and keep him underneath his neighbor’s seat, according to Rizzi. After a heated exchange between Rizzi and the flight attendant, the pilot announced the plane would be returning to the gate, Rizzi said.
Rizzi and his dog were then escorted off the plane by airport security, according to Rizzi.
After Rizzi and Doxy were removed from the plane, passengers demanded that the flight attendant be removed from the plane and Rizzi let back on, said passenger Kurt Budke. He said that all 35 passengers banded together in support of Rizzi, and after realizing the passengers would not budge, the pilot announced the flight was canceled.
If the flight attendant had tried to make alternate accommodations for Rizzi, Budke believes that the situation could have been avoided completely.
“US Airways is sorry for the inconvenience, and we are looking into the situation to see if it was handled properly,” US Airways spokeswoman Liz Landau said Thursday. She added that the pilot and the flight crew elected to return to the gate due to the safety concerns caused by the actions of the dog and said Rizzi was verbally abusive to the flight attendant.
Landau said that the pilot and flight crew didn’t feel that it was safe to operate the flight after seeing how upset the customers were at the incident and said that the pilot asked everyone to disembark once it reached the gate.
US Airways then provided free buses from the Philadelphia airport to the Long Island airport, Landau said.
“This became the most wonderful experience, out of the most horrible experience. I found that humanity does exist, and people can do the right thing,” Rizzi said, referring to the actions of his fellow passengers.
Rizzi said he has not been contacted by US Airways since the incident and is considering legal action.
“They picked the wrong guy to mess with,” Rizzi said. He is active in the blind community and sits on the disability advisory board for Suffolk County, where he resides.
Rizzi became blind eight years ago after surviving meningitis and has had Doxy for seven years. Rizzi said Doxy is short for Doxology, meaning “praise to God” and “a new beginning.” When they were matched seven years ago, Doxy was just beginning his service as a guide dog and Rizzi was just beginning his life as a blind man.