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The Airline Whisperer: How One Wheelchair User is Making Air Travel More Accessible from the Inside


In the 10 years since he founded wheelchairtravel.org, John Morris has racked up well over a million miles flying around the world and has watched airlines total his power wheelchair four times. He’s lost track of how many times his chair has been damaged and won’t even guess how many times his rights as a traveler have been stepped on.But none of that has dampened his love for flying. Listening to him talk about everything from airports, to specific planes, to the overall experience of air travel, it becomes clear that for Morris, flying is more than a business or a pastime: It’s a passion. “I’ve loved travel all my life,” he says. “Taking off and landing are my two favorite experiences in the world, even better than a roller coaster.”Understanding Morris’ deep-seated passion for his subject is key to grasping why he’s emerged as one of the most thoughtful and effective leaders in the fight for a more accessible future for air travel, where everyone can safely enjoy flying, regardless of their physical function.

With well-over 100 flights per year, Morris has built relationships with airport and airline staff all over the world.

Morris remembers how easy and enjoyable traveling was before the 2012 car accident that led to the amputation of his right hand and both legs. “I have a perspective on the tremendous freedom that I had in traveling and exploring the world. I don’t think that any of that freedom should be restricted,” he says. “At the end of the day, it’s more than frustration. It’s part anger at the status quo persisting for so long, and it’s also this realization that no one is coming here to defend me — I have to do it myself.”Morris started doing that by creating one of the most widely read accessible-travel newsletters and one of the best sites for disabled travelers and industry professionals; and in 2023, a year after almost rolling away from his travel platform, he has taken his advocacy to a new level. In a year which saw some of the first real signs of progress on improving accessible air travel, he was a constant force for change behind the scenes, in front of cameras and on social media. For his continued vigilance and dedication to serving the disability community, we are proud to honor him as the 2023 New Mobility Person of the Year.

Finding Hope at 35,000 Feet

Lying in a hospital bed after being severely injured in a car accident and explosion in 2012, a 23-year-old John Morris wondered whether his life as a frequent traveler had come to an end. Prior to the accident, he had racked up hundreds of thousands of air travel miles, flying so frequently he was on a first-name basis with many airport staff. As a student and later as a high school teacher, he cut down on airfare costs by planning elaborate multidestination routes that earned him loyalty bonuses and discounts.After his accident, with third- and fourth-degree burns covering 30% of his body, and multiple surgeries and possible amputations looming, that all seemed in jeopardy. “I was led to believe in the hospital that travel was going to be off-limits and that my own lifestyle was not going to be attainable,” he says. “I just wasn’t fed any real hope.”It took getting back in the air to rediscover that hope. After spending much of his first post-accident year in the hospital, Morris decided for amputating both legs below the knees. He already had his right hand amputated, and realized a dramatic reduction in pain, so he hoped this step would further reduce his pain levels.A few weeks later in January 2014, with his legs still bandaged, and not having been in public other than to church, Morris rolled onto a cross-country flight from Florida to California with his sister to watch his beloved Florida State Seminoles play for the college football national championship. “I was sitting on an airplane before I even went to a restaurant as a wheelchair user. Medically, maybe I should not have taken the trip, but I just I had to,” he says.Morris’ Seminoles won, but more importantly the trip gave him confidence that his life as a traveler did not have to end. Within weeks he was back on planes, visiting friends throughout the Northeast, and in April, gazing from atop the Great Wall of China. By year’s end, he had been on over 150 flights. “You couldn’t stop me once I got going,” he says. “It was unbelievable. Looking back, I’ve never had a better year in my life.”At the time of his accident, Morris was teaching high school history and even considered joining the seminary, but now he’d found a new calling. Recognizing the need for more and better accessible travel information, Morris registered the domain wheelchairtravel.org in September 2014 and started posting content the following January. “The more I traveled, the more I realized I could potentially make a difference in the accessible travel world,” he says.

Egypt is one of the many fun destinations Morris has reviewed for accessibility on wheelchairtravel.org.

A Platform Is Born

Building wheelchairtravel.org into one of the web’s best roadmaps for traveling with a disability didn’t happen overnight. From the beginning, Morris set a high standard with well-written reviews and stories that went beyond glossy promotional content. While Morris covered many of the fancy and often expensive destinations other travel writers and influencers did, he also made a point of being up front about costs and prioritized the nitty-gritty details that might make or break a trip for someone with specific needs. “I try to provide answers to the questions that I had when I first started traveling with a disability, practical information about traveling by air and finding a hotel,” he says.Through good and bad experiences, he realized that understanding your rights as a disabled traveler is just as important — if not more — than knowing the bed height and door width. “I had heard of the Americans with Disabilities Act but didn’t really know much about it, and I certainly had never heard of the Air Carrier Access Act. But I read those and I read through the regulations, and that inspired me to get the word out,” he says. “People need to know that these rights exist. I want people to understand the rights that you have to accessibility and equal access.”

Airline industry conferences give Morris an opportunity to advocate for accessibility.

Morris started a regular newsletter in 2015, devoting ample space to covering industry news and government policy that affected disabled travelers. His candor and insight gave him a broad appeal that went beyond disabled travelers. “If you go down the email list on my site, you’ll find every airline domain name listed in the contacts, and hotels and aircraft manufacturers and Airbus and Boeing — they’re all in there. I haven’t put them there. They’ve signed up themselves,” he says.The same people signing up for Morris’ newsletter started offering him speaking and consulting opportunities. After a long career in the travel industry, Jake Steinman learned about Morris while planning to launch a new organization promoting accessible travel. Steinman saw a need to educate travel leaders about disability, and identified Morris as the perfect person for the job. “I think he’s the brightest person in the industry that I’ve met,” Steinman says. “He’s not just book smart, but he’s got good judgment. He’s a thought leader.” Steinman was so impressed, he recruited Morris to be one of the original advisory board members of his industry accessibility group, TravelAbility.Steinman compares Morris to a utility infielder in baseball, saying, “I can assign him to anything and I know he will do it well and he’s fine with it.” One of those assignments was being a panelist for a first-of-its-kind accessible-travel summit in 2018. Most of the attendees were nondisabled travel-industry leaders. “When they see somebody like him, what he’s accomplished and how often he’s traveled, they’re just gobsmacked,” says Steinman.

All Wheels Up Founder Michele Erwin (left) appreciates Morris’s levelheaded approach to advocacy. “The industry feels that they can learn from him,” she says.

Pandemic Problems

Morris funded his initial post-accident travels with money from a small settlement and financial support from friends and family, but eventually needed to figure out a way to sustainably monetize his efforts. To save on costs and continue generating content, he started doing more press trips paid for by destinations, and took on more speaking engagements and opportunities to train business partners. Then 2020 rolled around.“The pandemic shut all that down,” he says. “I really did not know how much longer I could sustain things. I decided to go back to school at University of Florida and get my MBA. I wasn’t going to abandon the website, but I decided the majority of the time and my 9 to 5 couldn’t be the travel industry anymore, it had to be a real corporate job.”In the interim, Morris continued to make headlines. In November 2020, his coverage of a policy change that would have prevented power wheelchair users from flying on American Airlines got picked up by national media and led to American apologizing and reversing the policy. In July 2022, he popped back into the headlines after American destroyed two of his wheelchairs in a span of 17 days.Both of those 2022 flights occurred while Morris was moving to Boston. He’d signed a lease and accepted a job as the senior manager of culture and inclusion for a large online furniture retailer. The job seemed a good blend of Morris’ passions for employment and disability equity, and he was slated to start in August. But a week before his start date, the company rescinded the offer, citing tough economic times. “I wasn’t sure how to react,” says Morris. “I felt like an unmoored boat, just floating out in the ocean with no coastline in sight and no directional navigation aids. It was scary.”Steinman commiserated with Morris as he planned his next steps. “I think he sort of felt defeated,” says Steinman. “It was just so unfair.”While Morris searched for similar jobs, he began investing more time again in wheelchairtravel.org. By the end of 2022 and about four months of fruitless searching, his perspective had changed. “I started to think my preference is to fail in this job search,” he says.With traffic on his website exceeding pre-pandemic levels, and plenty of opportunities that he had put aside during the time away, Morris recommitted to making his travel work a sustainable, full-time gig. “I felt as though there was a lot of work left unfinished,” he says. “It was nice to be presented with the opportunity to continue that work on a full-time basis and to remain focused on it.”

Morris still finds time to enjoy the destinations he visits.

The Industry

By the end of the pandemic, accessible air travel had emerged as one of the hottest topics in disability. Countless stories of damaged wheelchairs and trampled rights swept social media, prompting national media outlets to pick up more than the occasional story. Morris’ reporting and advocacy ideally positioned him to reap the benefits from the uptick in interest.To spur change, Morris long ago made the decision to prioritize his advocacy efforts on the people designing, building and managing the planes, instead of the government officials who crafted policies affecting accessible travel.“I feel like I have a better chance of being successful with industry than with government,” he says. “With industry, I have a lot of credibility. They may not like what I say, and I certainly put people on the spot, but they know where to find me and they know I am honest.”In 2023, Morris attended five of the industry’s key events and showcases, often finding himself the only wheelchair user or disability advocate in attendance. “I’ve got to decide what cape I’m wearing at different moments,” he says. “Media is not generally welcome at those events, so there’s sort of an understanding that I’m not there to cover the event as a journalist, but to attend as an advocate.”As much as Morris loves to break an important story, he has bigger goals. “I would rather spend the money and get no financial return on going to an industry conference and maybe put something in someone’s mind that comes to fruition in terms of a new accessibility feature five years down the line,” he says. “There’s a huge range of barriers that exist, and it’s going to take a long time to overcome them all, but the only way it’s going to happen is with allies on the inside.”Michele Erwin, founder of All Wheels Up, the organization leading the fight to allow wheelchair users to fly in their wheelchairs, has crossed paths and worked with Morris on and off over the last five years. “There are not a lot of other people doing what he does, and actually, I think it’d be fair to say, there isn’t anybody else doing it like him,” she says. “Instead of going to Congress and trying to force change on the industry, he seeks the industry players out and meets them in their sandbox, saying, ‘Let’s have a conversation.’”One of the events Morris attended was the Aircraft Cabin Innovation Summit in Atlanta. The conference is usually attended by senior executives in the aircraft cabin interiors industry who are working to improve passenger experiences. Monica Wick, CEO of RedCabin, the company that organizes the summits, says Morris’ insights have been invaluable. “It’s fair to say John has changed the way the industry thinks about this challenge,” she says. “His ceaseless campaigning and contributions to RedCabin will help change the future dynamic for flying in a wheelchair.”Whether he’s speaking about accessibility on a panel or simply chatting up a fellow attendee, Morris has a skill for getting others to see things from a different perspective. “He definitely draws you in when he’s speaking,” says Erwin. “You want to listen to what he has to say, and you never feel like you’re being spoken at or preached to. The industry feels that they can learn from him and he’s not up there pounding some sort of soapbox drum.”His industry-whispering paid off last June when he got to be the first wheelchair user to publicly demonstrate Delta Air Lines’ first-ever on-plane wheelchair securement prototype at the Aircraft Interiors Expo in Hamburg, Germany. Such a system has been the holy grail to many wheelchair users for a long time. Morris has covered numerous rumored versions of the idea across the industry in the past 5-7 years, and has been a strong supporter both publicly and behind closed doors. Thanks to an industry friend, he got a late heads-up that Delta planned to unveil the system at AIX. Morris hadn’t planned on attending but immediately reached out and got on the schedule. “I was thrilled to see it,” he says. “I think that really is the solution that so many people have been waiting on for decades.”

United Spinal Continues to Fight for More Accessible Air Travel

United Spinal Association continues pushing for passage of multiple disability provisions in the Securing Growth and Robust Leadership in American Aviation Act, which will reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration and its programs for the next five years. This bill includes provisions to improve consumer protections and accessibility standards. One important provision would implement training standards for airline employees to safely assist wheelchair users onto the plane and properly stow wheelchairs during flight.

For more information on the disability provisions that United Spinal is pushing, and to tell your representatives to support this important legislation, view United Spinal’s action alert. United Spinal strongly urges Congress to pass this reauthorization by March, when FAA funding is currently set to expire.

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Demanding Accountability

Even with the excitement, Morris knows implementation of a working system remains years away and is far from guaranteed. He also knows that until solutions like a securement system are in place and airlines are held accountable, disabled passengers will continue to be treated as second-class citizens. Knowing these harsh realities motivates him to keep shining light on the often-dark circumstances that disabled travelers face.Morris was one of the first people, if not the first, to report on the lawsuit brought against United Airlines by the family of wheelchair user Nathaniel “N.J.” Foster Jr., who went into a coma after an incident while being wheeled off a plane. Morris flew to San Francisco in August 2023 to report on the trial.“No matter who was at fault, we can’t have a situation where someone gets on an airplane, and before they’re off the airplane, they are brain-dead because of a loss of oxygen,” he says. “No other passenger on that airplane walked off with an injury of any kind. Something terrible happened there. It should not have happened.”After one day of trial, United settled for $30 million with no admission of guilt. Morris is committed to using the platform that he has built to hold the airlines accountable and bring about a future where no one else has to go through what the Fosters experienced.“We’ve got to solve for the problems that are facing travelers right now. It can’t be, ‘Well, let’s put investment on hold for 30 years, while we wait for wheelchair spaces to be installed and widely available,’” he says. At the top of Morris’ list are improving accessibility training and accountability for airline staff, and getting airlines to collect and share more data about their planes and how they handle mobility devices.

Business and Pleasure

To help realize those goals, Morris is committed to further growing his platform and methods of engagement. On the strictly travel side, he is expanding his group travel offerings. He had sold out a series of accessible tours of Portugal in 2020, but had to cancel because of the pandemic. He’s also looking to monetize his writing. With over 27,000 subscribers signed up for his free newsletter, Morris decided to start posting paywall-protected content regularly on Substack. “I feel like if I continue doing good work the support will increase, and then perhaps Substack can really become a key pillar of my business model. It’s already growing in importance,” he says.He’s also taking on more consulting opportunities with destination management organizations like Meet Boston, working to educate travel insiders about authentic representation and the true value of accessibility. “I’m trying to make sure that disabled people are incorporated into that marketing,” he says, “not just on the surface level of including disabled people in the photo media that they use, but in actually developing resources.”When Morris is not busy with all those endeavors, he’ll likely be responding to the multitude of emails his readers send. He runs wheelchairtravel.org by himself. He estimates he spends two hours every day personally responding to reader emails, and seems genuine when saying he wishes he had more time to get through his backlog. The same passion he shows for traveling, drives his work as a reporter and an advocate.It takes a certain personality and perspective to watch your wheelchair damaged and broken repeatedly and still show up at the gate every day with a smile. John Morris has that unique blend, and the disability community is fortunate to have him.



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