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Wheelchair Users' Complaints Lead First DOT Report on Airline Discrimination

A U.S. Dept. of Transportation report says that nearly two-thirds of complaints filed against U.S. airlines by disabled air travelers involve -- surprise! -- wheelchair problems. Over 10,000 complaints were filed with U.S. airlines in 2004, says the report. Well over 6,000 concerned damaged or lost chairs and "excessive waits for stored chairs upon landing." The four big airlines American, Delta, United and Northwest accounted for six out of ten of the complaints in 2004. Other complaints filed by disabled travelers included inadequate assistance, poor seating arrangements and inaccessible aircraft.

The "Annual Report on Disability Related Air Travel Complaints," Sept. 2005, is the first of its kind, and is a result of the Wendell H. Ford Aviation Investment and Reform Act" (PL 106-181), which requires that the Secretary of Transportation "regularly review all complaints received by air carriers alleging discrimination on the basis of disability" and "report annually to Congress." Regulations issued in July, 2003 specified the details of the information that was to be gathered from airlines by DOT. "The 2003 rule also requires the covered carriers to retain copies of the applicable complaints and records of the action taken for each complaint for three years, and to submit the required disability-related complaint data to the U.S. Department of Transportation annually," says this first report. You can get the summary of "Complaints Received By Airlines About Disability Issues" in an inaccessible PDF file (read accessible html file generated by google). The detail -- a table of all the complaints listed by airline, type of disability and type of complaint -- is in a large html file.

Since the Air Carrier Access Act allows no lawsuits, and the chance of changing that in Congress was nil, this method was the only way advocates had of forcing the issue -- such a report could at least shine some negative attention to airlines. It's already had that effect, with a story appearing in USA Today.

The DOT was told to gather information by disabillity type -- the categories they were told to list were "vision impaired," "hearing impaired," "vision and hearing impaired," "mentally impaired," "communicable disease," "allergies" (e.g., "food allergies," "chemical sensitivity"), "paraplegic," "quadriplegic," "other wheelchair," "oxygen," "stretcher," "other assistive device (cane," "respirator," etc.), and "other disability" -- and to require the airline to categorize "the nature of the alleged discrimination or service problem," and include as specific categories "refusal to board," "refusal to board without an attendant," "security issues concerning disability," "aircraft not accessible," "airport not accessible," "advance-notice dispute," "seating accommodation," "failure to provide adequate or timely assistance," "damage to assistive device," "storage or delay of assistive device," "service animal problem," "unsatisfactory information," and "other."

The catch-all "failure to provide assistance" was the most frequent complaint: American had over 1,000 such complaints lodged against it; Delta had over 800; Northwest and United each had over 700. The large carriers American, Delta, United and Northwest had the bulk of complaints. (Detailed report.) Despite gathering the information, DOT seems at pains to explain that they will do nothing about the situation:

The substance of the complaints filed with the carriers has not been reviewed to determine whether the incidents constituted violations of the ACAA or the provisions of 14 CFR Part 382. Such an undertaking would require resources well beyond the Department’s investigative capabilities. Therefore, the complaint numbers should not be interpreted as reflecting violations of law. Moreover, the data being provided was taken directly from reports submitted by carriers and have not been audited or verified by the Department.

According to the report, the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics estimates that over 17 million air trips are made by people with disabilities in the U.S. each year.

A good overview of the history behind DOT's disability complaint process can be found on this web page of the National Association of the Deaf.

The actual complaint form to fill out is available online at the Dept. of Transportation website in inaccessible PDF form; more information at the DOT site, including an email address to contact, is available at http://airconsumer.ost.dot.gov/forms.htm


I have been in a chair almost 8 yrs and fly frequently, with very few problems ever. Some folks do, some don't. Some people's cats don't bark... So what now.

I can appreciate how difficult and frustrating it must be to be in a chair and have problems with the airlines. However, there is a certain absurdity in showing up at an airport using a white cane, and being told that you can't "go to the gate", "get off the plane" or "leave the gate" WITHOUT using a wheelchair. Wherever I travel, the term "assistance" seems to be translated to mean "wheelchair". When I insist (nicely) that I am perfectly capable of walking, that I just need someone to read the signs for me, I am told that we can't go anywhere unless I am in a wheelchaair (and the rationale that they use is that the rule is the sky caps), I often will put my carry-on luggage into the wheelchair just so we can get MOVING!!!

I put a link to the story on my blog.

Thanks, Ken!

--Teresa, Ragged Edge Online

I flew from the Tampa Bay area into the Lexington airport over the Summer without much trouble. It was the higher security leval that was a bit too much. I did buy a brand new chair
weighing ony 31 pounds for the trip and cab rides which was made in China like everything else. I think they should allow lawsuits in only cases of extreme cases of discrimination.

I fly almost every month to various disability related committees, boards or actions throughout the United States and have found that about 70% of my trips encounter some type of problem with either slow retrieval of my wheelchair, simply inadequate education of ground personel as to how to put back together my chair, or the inability to reconnect cables properly once it has been disconnected due to individual "airline regulations". Not to mention the times my chair has been damaged, even IF it is eventually repaired at the airlines' expense.

Many a time have I sat on a cold jetway waiting for an airline employee to come up and trouble shoot why my chair was no longer getting power simply because something had been disconnecterd or taken off without the arriving airport knowing what the departing airport had done.

Paying for a hotel and transportation to and from that hotel (due to a missed connection because of their delay) apparently seems to be a small consolation for the airlines to pay, with little regard to the disruption made to my own personal travelling schedule and committments.

Lopeti S. Penima'ani writes,

I fly almost every month to various disability related committees, boards or actions throughout the United States and have found that about 70% of my trips encounter some type of problem ...

I hope you're filing complaints -- the more complaints people file the more serious the problem will be taken. It's the only power wheelchair users have right now under the Air Carrier Access Act!

After reading Gregory's post I felt I had to reply. I often travel with an electric scooter and recently I travelled to Las Vegas via Champion Air Lines. While setting up my scooter for use after the flight, another passenger and I began to talk. He could not get any power to his wheelchair and was on the phone with his wheelchair company. He was travelling with a companion who knew nothing of electronics or wheelchairs. Since he was a paraplegic he could not get out of his wheelchair and see what was wrong but I could. I checked all connections and found several had been disconnected before loading the wheelchair on the plane. A hand mirror in my purse helped greatly with diagnosis. We finally got everything reconnected and he was able to move. At no time did anyone from the airline attempt to help. It was a case of one disabled person crawling around on the ground helping another disabled person.
After our vacations in Vegas, we ended up on the same flight back to st. Louis. Upon arrival, we repeated the same experience we had when we arrived in Las vegas. Once again the airline crew had randomly disconnected wires and leads in an attempt to disconnect the battery. Once again, no one from the airline attempted to help or correct the problem they had caused.
While talking to one of the wheelchair personnel I learned that he thought that all of us got our wheelchairs or scooters paid for by the government or our insurance companies. He was under the impression that we all got new conveyences whenever we wanted one. I assured him that was not the case in spite of the commercials we've all seen on TV. I paid for my own scooter since my insurance company does not consider MS and Peripheral Neuropathy secondary to MS to be a good reason for a scooter. Travel, shopping and doctor's visits are strictly non-necessary events. I have several disabled friends and I've never known (nor have they) anyone to get a scooter paid for by insurance or govt. funds. The airlines just don't have any idea what harm they are doing to our pocket books as well as our mobility when they tear up our wheelchairs or scooters. Furthermore, I don't think that the airline personnel cares.
I don't think it will change either. It is my opinion that the airline personnel think that if they make it difficult for us to travel, we will stop.
As one who has been abandoned on the side of the road by a Greyhound bus driver, I am getting very discouraged. Instead of personalities running around in fat suits, they should be seeing what it is like to run around in a wheelchair.

I think there should be special service for disabled and special check in gate.

We are just beginning to travel with an electric chair. Are there any airlines that are good to work with, and are there any to avoid?

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