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"Feds get tough on airlines as disabled fliers complain"


 
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.

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