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Quadriplegic taken off TIA flight

He says, "I was discriminated against, embarrassed" when carried off a US Airways plane.

By STEVE HUETTEL
Published February 16, 2005


[Photo: WTSP-10]
Phil Barrett, who uses a breathing device, was leaving for surgery in Cleveland when he was not allowed to fly.

The trip began like perhaps 20 others Phil Barrett says he had flown on US Airways.

Barrett and his nurse checked in three hours early at Tampa International Airport. A quadriplegic, Barrett told ticket agents he was traveling with a ventilator, he says, and they put a sticker on his shirt to make sure he was seated ahead of the crowd.

But before his flight left the gate Saturday, airline personnel said Barrett had to be carried off the plane. The airline decided that because his ventilator was a life-support device, it was too risky for him to fly.

"I was discriminated against, embarrassed," said Barrett, 33, who was paralyzed 13 years ago in a diving accident.

On Tuesday, Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist wrote US Airways chief executive Bruce Lakefield that federal law bans airlines from refusing to transport people with disabilities.

The airline said employees followed procedures developed to comply with the Air Carrier Access Act, including contacting medical consultants before Barrett was removed from the flight.

They arranged for a cab ride to his home in Spring Hill and are refunding his ticket, US Airways said.

"We take these matters seriously and are in the process of conducting an internal review of the incident and our procedures to understand what transpired," Christopher Chaimes, a senior vice president, wrote in a letter to Crist.

Barrett was on his way to Cleveland for surgery to let him breathe on his own.

Owners of Able Body Labor, a Clearwater construction labor company, heard about Barrett's story, broadcast on WTSP-Ch. 10. Frank and Anne Mongelluzzi flew him to Ohio on their private jet Monday.

This morning, he is scheduled for surgery to implant electrodes in his diaphragm. They are attached through wires under the skin to an external battery pack that sends electricity to the muscle and phrenic nerves. That makes the muscle contract and sends air into the lungs.

Actor Christopher Reeve, paralyzed in a horse riding accident, had the same surgery at University Hospitals of Cleveland in 2003. Some patients have been able to breathe around the clock without mechanical assistance after the procedure, Barrett said.

A 20-year-old Marine on leave, Barrett dove into Lake Oneida, N.Y., while staying at a girlfriend's house in 1991. He didn't know the water was low from a long drought and the dive damaged his spinal cord.

Barrett bought a home in Spring Hill the next year. He lives by himself with help from a visiting nurse.

Traveling with nurse and ventilator isn't a problem, Barrett said. He can breathe two hours sitting up without mechanical assistance, Barrett said, and his companion brings a hand-pumped resuscitator called an Ambu Bag in case the ventilator fails.

"I'm paralyzed, but I'm totally healthy," he said. "They ignored everything I was saying. I'm disgusted with them."

US Airways is trying to reach Barrett but hasn't been able to, a spokesman said.

The airline pledged to notify him in writing within 10 days with its reason for refusing him travel, as required by federal law. Crist will get a copy of any correspondence, Chaimes wrote.

--Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or 813 226-3384.

[Last modified February 16, 2005, 01:20:12]


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