November 29, 2005

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

Posted on November 29, 2005