Luke Visconti, CEO: Newark Airport Hates People with Disabilities

When services are poor, most people with disabilities stay home.

Luke Visconti is the founder and CEO of DiversityInc. Although the title of his column is meant to be humorous, the issues he addresses and the answers he gives to questions are serious—and based on his 16 years of experience publishing DiversityInc. Click here to send your own question to Luke.

My Amtrak column had some positive benefits: I’ve noted more attention to detail by the train crew to the seat reserved for people with disabilities, and there is now a paper reminder taped to the one seat reserved for people with disabilities when I ride the all-reserved Acela to D.C., so the able-bodied slobs that lust after that seat are less likely to be confronted.

Perhaps change will also happen at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (which runs Newark, LaGuardia and JFK Airports) after this column, but I doubt it.

I am forced to use Newark Airport on almost a weekly basis. It’s a horrible airport; it is poorly designed and filthy. Every airport I’ve been to in developed and developing countries are far better maintained. Newark Airport is an embarrassment to our nation and a daily reminder of why everybody in New Jersey who travels regularly needs to move to Florida.

But the special torture reserved for people with disabilities is Kafkaesque in its singular ability to frustrate, humiliate and destroy the egos of people with disabilities.

I can drive and, despite my remaining partial paralysis, I’m fairly ambulatory, but I have limited use of my left hand and arm.

I like to use curbside check-in because managing a roller bag with one fully functioning arm and an awkward gate is very difficult. Curbside check-in is only available in the C-terminal and then only available on one level where you have to be dropped off. So if you can drive to the airport, you are out of luck. By the way, there are never any open spots for people with disabilities, and there are none on the ground floor. There are, however, plenty of “special reserved” spots, which are an additional fee above the $45 per day parking. A dirt bag move by management.

Without the accessible parking and almost unavailable curbside check-in, if I don’t take Uber, I have to drag my roller bag in and wait in line to check my bag. Not a big deal for someone without mobility issues, but you’re out of luck if you have them. Before my stroke, I never checked a bag. That’s not an option now.

The good news is that the curbside check-in people, who appear to be private contractors, are wonderful.

Wheelchair services are another story. Another apparently private contractor, the people running wheelchair services were completely replaced about two months ago with a new crew so surly and so incompetent, and with “new” wheelchairs so uncomfortable, that I prefer to hobble my way through that ridiculous airport, which has removed the moving walkways and is building more unnecessary retail stands in their place (a process that is taking months and making the remaining walkway more narrow and difficult to maneuver than ever).

It is worth noting that the little electric passenger carts that used to be available seem to have disappeared.

When you return from your trip, there are never wheelchairs available on time at the gate. (Often, the people who guide the plane to the gate aren’t on time either — the only airport I travel to where this happens). People who need wheelchairs are forced to wait and maybe have the gate agent make a phone call and wait some more, or, if they are as ambulatory as I am, they can hobble out.

I’d imagine the excuse for poor services for people with disabilities is that they’re not in demand. There’s no chicken and egg here: if the services suck as badly as they do at Newark airport, people with disabilities stay home. This is a public facility, which means the people running it are malfeasant.

I invite Port Authority Executive Director Patrick Foye to leave the limo and entourage at home and journey to Newark airport as a citizen with disabilities. Experience life through our eyes and see if you want to jump off the roof like I do every time I go to your filthy, poorly run airport.

I’ll close with a story about my last experience on Amtrak. I sat down in the sole seat reserved for people with disabilities, which had been nicely marked “reserved” by the train crew. A man with an assistance dog walked on and asked me if I had a disability. I said, “As a matter fact, I’m partially paralyzed — are you worse off than me?” He kindly said, “Probably not, but I need a place for my dog.” I responded “No problem” and when I got up, we gave each other a little hug.” I think both of us felt pretty good the whole trip. The crew, which was hovering helpfully nearby, should’ve felt good as well.

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LUKE VISCONTI is a board member of NOD (National Organization on Disabilities). NOD offers a disability employment tracker, which is a free service and returns a report on an organization’s efforts to hire people with disabilities. The Port Authority is not a member of NOD’s CEO Council, nor does it use the tracker. 

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6 comments


  • God bless you, Luke. I, too, am mobility-impaired, but have had good experiences — thus far — with the airports in Dallas and Las Vegas, which are the only ones I’ve used since my injury. Both are clean and well-maintained, but require a lot of walking, so the wheelchairs are a blessing. Only once was there a substantial wait for a wheelchair attendant, due to multiple demands. I agree that there does need to be some type of better system for those who drive themselves to the airport to be able to drop off their luggage curbside, but maybe that’s some kind of anti-terrorism issue.

    • I don’t mind waiting when demand is high, I do mind that you have to go to one remote place in the airport (in one terminal only, out of three) to get a wheelchair (no way else to request it) and wait every single time, while the supervisor laboriously transcribes the entire boarding pass onto a clipboard while a 2-way radio screeches at full volume.

      I think Uber should run the airports, start to finish. Need a wheelchair? There’s an app for that. The entire leadership team of the Port Authority can then “work from home” for their patronage jobs and not impead taxpayers trying to make a living.

  • I had no idea that it was so difficult to get around the airports and trains for a disabled person. I assumed there were laws that required public areas to better accommodate people with disabilities. I am sad that anyone would have to go through so much hardship, and I am appalled that you have to pay more than an able bodied person for parking. That is totally unacceptable! It reminds me that when you have to buy bigger sized clothing, there is often a higher price. How does the airport get away with that? Thanks for educating me.

    • I didn’t know either – until I joined the community. Not all airports are like Newark – in fact, every other one I’ve been to is better. Most are mediocre. A few are really good.

      Most places do not actively manage accessibility and there is a difference between thoughtfulness and compliance.

  • Lauri Sue Robertson

    Loved the article! My one experience with Newark was arriving there with no sign of my wheelchair coming off the plane.
    I sat there in a broken old chair while airport staff said they did not know anything about it. We eventually found it in “Oversized Luggage”, way down the hall. When we got my chair, the staff said they were waiting for me to come find it. If I had not had my ambulatory husband there to help, how was I supposed to get to my chair – fly?

    • That’s a typical day at Newark airport. I think most people who work there are completely unsupervised.

      My favorite “you must be high” feature is the new “help” desk strategically located in the most remote EXIT of terminal C. You don’t see it until you’ve concluded your nightmare.

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