Dustin Hankinson's muscular dystrophy forces him to use a ventilator and a wheelchair. Because of his mobility challenges, the 37-year-old Missoula man took pains planning where he would stay and what he would do during a scheduled visit to Washington, D.C., last year.
He also took pains to ensure that he'd be cleared to fly. Prior to Hankinson's Oct. 4, 2011 flight, he says that his caregiver phoned Delta Connection to ensure there would be no problems leaving from Missoula International Airport. Once at MSO, Hankinson cleared security and made his way to the gate. But as he prepared to board his flight, a Delta Airlines employee intervened.
"They essentially yelled at me," Hankinson says, "and told me I couldn't get on the plane."
Compass Airlines, which flies as a Delta Connection carrier, admits in documents filed Nov. 15 in federal court that the employee wrongly believed that Hankinson's ventilator was a portable oxygen concentrator, which is forbidden on commercial flights without a medical waiver. The erroneous identification prompted the agent to prohibit Hankinson from getting on the plane.
Hankinson, who's the chair of the Missoula Democratic Party and a commissioner with the Montana Human Rights Bureau, which is charged to vet discrimination complaints, is well versed on the law. The day of the incident, he filed a complaint with the federal Department of Transportation alleging that Compass discriminated against him based on his disability. Hankinson also filed a complaint with the HRB. Because of Hankinson's work with the watchdog agency, the case was transferred to the Idaho Commission of Human Rights, which investigated. According to court documents, the Idaho Commission found grounds to believe that Hankinson was discriminated against. The HRB in October advised Compass that it would hold a hearing to evaluate whether the airline broke the law. If the HRB finds Compass guilty, it could award Hankinson damages.
On Nov. 15, Compass filed a lawsuit against the HRB in federal court. Compass argues the state has no authority over the airline and the court should limit further proceedings to the federal level. Compass explains in its lawsuit that it has taken action to ensure that it doesn't make the same mistake again and that it fired the employee who told Hankinson he couldn't get on the plane.
Compass Airlines did not respond to an interview request for this story.