Monday, July 31, 2000 Feds get tough on airlines as disabled fliers complain Northwest, 5 other airlines targets of investigation By Shawn D. Lewis The Detroit (MI) News The federal government is stepping up enforcement of laws aimed at protecting the rights of disabled air travelers, as complaints against U.S. airlines have more than doubled over the past year. The enforcement efforts launched by the U.S. Department of Transportation without much fanfare are the result of increased pressure from advocacy groups. "We have been more closely monitoring the instances of discrimination," said Bill Mosley of the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT). "The National Council on Disability submitted a report to DOT recommending changes, and we agreed." At the same time, complaints -- ranging from blatant discrimination and being left stranded on planes, to lost and damaged wheelchairs -- have risen sharply. Complaints by disabled passengers doubled in the first four months of this year, after a 59-percent increase in 1999 over the year before. "I've had to crawl down the aisle of airplanes to avoid missing a connecting flight because my wheelchair had not arrived on time," said Darlene Hunter, 18, a wheelchair racer from Commerce Township who competes around the world. Six domestic airlines currently are being investigated, including Northwest, American and Continental, and five airlines already have been assessed civil penalties totaling more than $100,000. "There were several areas that needed improvement, especially the way (regulators) lumped complaints by disabled passengers in with complaints about reservations, ticketing and boarding," said Mark Quigley of the National Council on Disability. More disabled using airlines Mosley, of the U.S. Department of Transportation, said he didn't necessarily think the large increase in complaints meant service for disabled travelers was getting worse. "More disabled passengers are flying because they have better access, there are more rules to be followed and they have more information about airline policies," he said. Airline officials say they are doing all they can to ensure the rights of disabled travelers, especially through training. "The disabled are people with individual needs, and we must figure out the best solutions for our customers," said Ronald B. Pettit, manager of customer service policies and procedures for Northwest. According to the Air Transport Association, 582 million people flew on domestic carriers in 1999. Not all airlines track the number of disabled passengers who fly, but Northwest estimated 951,249 disabled passengers out of 56.1 million, and American said about 1.5 million disabled passengers out of 84.7 million flew their airlines last year. Only those who identified themselves as special-needs passengers were counted. Disabled passengers who do not request special accommodations are not included in the count. Critics disagreed with Mosley and the airlines over the issue of service. "I severely question a more than 50-percent increase in the number of disabled passengers traveling in one year," said attorney Kathleen A. Blank at the National Council on the Disabled in Washington, D.C. Blank and other council members recommended a separate category for disabled complaints to better assess their numbers and their nature, after an 18-month investigation of the department. In September 1999, the U.S. Department of Transportation began breaking out their complaints. Airlines are required to protect the rights of disabled airline passengers under the Air Carrier Access Act, passed in 1986. Accessibility in airport terminals is covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act, signed into law 10 years ago this month. The Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in employment, state and local government, public accommodations, commercial facilities, transportation and telecommunications. A disastrous trip Complaints from disabled passengers and their relatives are numerous. Patricia Wheeler of Troy said Southwest Airlines lost her 17-year-old mentally disabled son for 12 hours in April when flight attendants failed to help him make a connection on a flight to Detroit from San Jose, Calif., after a visit to see his uncle. The flight out was uneventful, she said, but the return trip was a disaster. Wheeler said she told the airline that her son, Jason Bell, would require assistance when the plane landed in Phoenix from San Jose. She asked that he be accompanied to the next gate for the connecting flight to Detroit. But that didn't happen. Bell remained in his seat, and the flight continued on to Amarillo, Texas. When the plane landed, Bell was told he had to get off. So he sat in the airport for hours while his mother waited frantically for him at Detroit Metropolitan Airport, repeatedly calling Southwest Airlines for answers. "When he finally arrived in Detroit the next day, he was hungry, dirty and terrified," Wheeler said. The airline responded with a letter of apology on June 5, refunded the fare and enclosed two complimentary round-trip passes. "We wanted to take care of him, but it appears we didn't follow procedures," said Christine Turneabe-Connelly, a spokesperson for Southwest Airlines. But 23 days later, on June 28, a Southwest claims representative sent another letter, denying any responsibility, in response to a letter from Wheeler's attorney. Some seek damages Some passengers are taking the airlines to court. Wheeler attempted to sue, but her lawyer said the cost of pursuing the case would outweigh any benefit. Marlene Suarez, 58, of Sterling Heights is suing Northwest Airlines and Prospect Airport Services Inc. The lawsuit, filed in Wayne Circuit Court, seeks damages of more than $100,000 for pain and suffering, physical disability, emotional distress and medical bills. Suarez, a retired educator, was traveling with a wheelchair when she boarded a flight to Detroit from Nevada in 1998. "She was having difficulty getting out of her seat, and asked if one of the flight attendants could lift the arm rest so she could get into her wheelchair," said her attorney Bret Schnitzer, of Melican and Schnitzer in Detroit. "She said she was told, quite rudely, 'We're not taking the seat apart for you.' " By law, all domestic airplanes must be equipped with a number of seats containing removable arm rests to accommodate disabled passengers, and airline personnel should receive training on how to remove them. Schnitzer said Northwest then brought a skycap from Prospect Airport Services on board. "He told her to stand up. She told him she didn't think she could do this, so he pulled her anyway," Schnitzer said. Suarez fell backward, he said, resulting in injuries requiring emergency surgery. Northwest Airlines and Prospect Airport Services officials declined to comment on the case, citing the pending litigation. Jim Hukill, 40, of Orlando, Fla., just wants the airlines to pay more attention. "If they listen to us and stop trying to do what they think is the correct thing to do, it's easier," said Hukill, who owns a nonprofit group for families with disabilities, and he flies at least three times a month. Industry executives say they are doing everything possible to better accommodate disabled passengers, including more comprehensive training of airline personnel. "When someone is first hired, they must take an initial training course which could last from three to six weeks, depending on their job classification," said Pettit of Northwest Airlines. Darlene Hunter, the wheelchair racer, said she simply wants to see service improve. "It just gets very tiring having to go through these problems almost every time I fly." How to get help If you or someone you know thinks they have been mistreated or discriminated against by the airline industry, contact: National Council on Disability 1331 F Street NW, Suite 1050 Washington, D.C. 20004 (202) 272-2004 www.ned.gov Americans with Disability Information Line (800) 514-0301 www.usdoj.gov/crt/ada/adahom1.htm To complain under the Air Carrier Access Act, contact: Aviation Consumer Protection Division U.S. Department of Transportation 400 Seventh St. S.W., Room 4107, C-75 Washington, D.C. 20590 (202) 366-2220 www.dot.gov/airconsumer Attached Photo's: Jim Hukill and his wife, Rhonette, travel about three times a month. Hukill said he just wants airlines to listen to the disabled. Troy resident Jason Bell, 17, with his parents, Don Anderson and Patricia Wheeler, sat in an Amarillo, Texas, airport for hours because he did not get the assistance needed to make a connecting flight home.