An airline rule barring blind passengers from seats near emergency exits is a safety measure that does not violate federal antidiscrimination laws, a federal judge here has ruled.
The decision by U.S. District Judge Stanley S. Harris came in a case against USAir brought by Russell W. Anderson, an Indianapolis lawyer who is blind.
Anderson was arrested at National Airport Feb. 6 when he refused to leave the seat he had been assigned in a row with an emergency exit.
The next evening he was joined by about 40 protesters in a demonstration against the policy, which is followed by most airlines.
In an opinion issued late Monday, Harris noted that the rule barring blind and other handicapped passengers from seats near emergency exits had been approved by the Civil Aeronautics Board as part of a regulation that also allows airlines to keep children, the elderly and others who might have trouble opening an emergency exit out of these seats.
"In this, the worst year in civil aviation history from the standpoint of the number of fatalities, the interest in air safety demands that every air passenger defer to the expertise of air transportation safety authorities," Harris declared.
"It is not just the blind or other handicapped person's safety the policy is designed to protect," the judge declared later, "but the safety of all passengers."
Anderson, supported by the National Federation of the Blind, had sued under Section 504 of the federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973 which says that "no otherwise qualified handicapped individual shall . . . be subjected to discrimination."
But Harris noted that federal safety studies indicate that blind passengers might impede the evacuation of a plane.