ACTIVIST Newsletter logo with ACTIVIST word displayed diagonally from bottom left to upper right
May 2006

by Barbara De Lollis

November 27, 2005 - USA Today - Bad service for passengers using wheelchairs drew more attention than any other problem on the government's first tally of disability-related complaints to airlines. In all, according to the recent report from the U.S. Department of Transportation, passengers filed 10,193 complaints with U.S. airlines in 2004, and about two-thirds involved wheelchairs.

In addition to inadequate assistance, passengers also complained of damaged chairs, poor seating arrangements, inaccessible aircraft and excessive waits for stored chairs upon landing. About 17 million disabled passengers fly each year, according to the government's most recent estimate.

The complaints about poor assistance don't surprise Bob Herman, senior attorney with Paralyzed Veterans of America. "That's where they fail the most often," he says of airlines.

Wheelchair users might wait an hour for help, and the person who arrives might not know proper lifting techniques or speak English, he says.

Congress ordered the report to draw attention to special travel challenges of the disabled.

The government will use the data to identify trends and bolster enforcement of laws meant to protect the disabled, says DOT lawyer Sam Podberesky.

Advocacy group officials say airlines have grown more responsive to their needs in recent years, but they hope the new information prompts even more action.

"The DOT is watching, so (the airlines) have to be a little more careful," says Kleo King, program counsel for the United Spinal Association, an advocate for people living with a spinal cord disability.

Partly due to the complaints from disabled passengers, Tempe,-Ariz.-based America West in the last year has changed its wheelchair-service vendor, doubled the number of wheelchairs at its Phoenix and Las Vegas hubs and added employees to oversee the operation, spokesman Carlo Bertolini says. The airline now part of US Airways has seen complaints fall 19% compared with the same time last year, he says.

Delta, too, upgraded its program. In August, it increased training for employees and vendors likely to deal with disabled passengers. Delta also has had customers with disabilities address front-line employees to give them their perspective on travel. Complaints are down from a year ago, Delta spokeswoman Chris Kelly says.

Four big carriers American, Delta, United and Northwest accounted for nearly 60% of the complaints in 2004.

Contributing: Barbara Hansen