Picking on the Wrong Passenger: AirAsia Gambles on Discrimination


AirAsia is not happy with Peter Tan.

Peter has a healthy sense of self-worth, a well-informed sense of social justice, and a widely read blog -- Digital Awakening. When he names his treatment by AirAsia as "discriminatory" he does not choose his words lightly.


Aside from the moral and legal issues involved in denying equal levels of service to passengers based on race or ability the tactic creates a public relations nightmare. Articulate and connected advocates like Peter are chided by their industry contacts for being precipitous, "We could have worked this out privately" is the line of argument-cum-shaming. That approach is ignorant of the ethos of advocacy that operates within a community when it becomes aware that it is tolerated as "special" rather than sought after as lucrative.

Peter was compelled to sign a waiver of liability as he reports in "AirAsia Still Practices Discrimination Against Disabled People." See the notation next to the signature block on he form below, "Under Protest."

Risk analysis can be used to justify innumerable utilitarian reasons for businesses to take morally questionable actions but it is fiction, not cold facts, that is more illuminating in this case. Ursula K. Le Guin's "The Ones Who Walked Away From Omelas" weaves the tale of a utopian society -- whose existence relies on the silent abuse of a single individual. Airline strategies that single out a class of customer and then attempt to co-opt those who resist will backfire.

For example, AirAsia is attempting to extend its route to Coventry, UK. However disability advocates there, having learned of their practices, and have alerted officials to review the company's practices in light of the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA).

It is simply better business to adopt Universal Design in airplane and airport design and extend the philosophy to business practices and policy. At the line level, management needs to read and apply the research done by Darcy & Daruwalla on discrimination in the travel industry. Download file

The December 2007 My Spin column in New Mobility magazine will begin with this premise. Peter Tan embodies the message:

When we travel we represent more than ourselves because we are part of a community. As a person with a disability you carry two items of unusual value -- especially in combination. Both tend to surprise those you meet as you travel. The two items are money and pride. By money I don’t just mean the change in your pocket. By pride I mean the self-determination of knowing who you are beyond economic measures of worth.


Further Reading:

Air Asia

Travelers with Disabilities: Responding to a Business Opportunity

The Global Reach of Accessible Tourism: IATC 2005 Keynote Address

US FAA Guidelines on transporting passengers with non-stable medical conditions (not appropriate for people with disabilities)

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