When Getting There Isn't Half the Fun

What to do when things go wrong, and what's being done to improve air travel for people with disabilities

by Tara Wood on June 1, 2000 - 10:12am

This is the second in a two-part series on traveling with a disability. The first part, "How to Fly Through the Air with the Greatest of Ease," ran in Quest Vol. 7, No. 2, April 2000.


Nicholas Johnson is a frequent flyer for his job as a consulting engineer with a highly regarded Boston firm.

So imagine his surprise when, following a recent trip on a major U.S. airline, he not only lost his wheelchair, but his independence and his dignity — all in the time it takes to get off an airplane and claim your luggage.

Flying first class back home to Boston and traveling with a senior associate in his firm, Johnson had gate-checked his wheelchair, expecting it to be returned to him upon landing. As it turned out, the chair remained behind. But that was just the beginning.

Johnson, who has Friedreich's ataxia and is a member of MDA's National Task Force on Public Awareness, waited until everyone else departed the plane. There was no sign of his wheelchair, a narrow aisle chair to transfer him off the plane, or a concerned airline or airport employee to resolve the situation.

Eventually, Johnson had to be carried off the plane by his associate and placed into an airline wheelchair that was extremely difficult for Johnson to maneuver. Again, no one was available to push him in the chair, and Johnson was given further runaround as he was sent throughout the airport to fill out forms for lost "baggage."

Most conversations during the fiasco were directed at Johnson's senior associate instead of himself, with most airline employees "treating me like I was mentally impaired," he said. Johnson also had great difficulty maneuvering the bulky airline wheelchair in the men's restroom.

Johnson was so shaken by the ordeal that, when he phoned his girlfriend while driving home from the airport, she asked him to pull over because he sounded so upset.

"It would have been better if I was alone," to spare some of the embarrassment in front of his colleague, Johnson said. "It's taken me a while to establish myself as the independent professional that I am. I am an associate of one of the leading firms in the country. So for that to happen in front of another associate — one who's a senior associate — it kind of knocks the wind out of you."

Quest won't name the airline, since Johnson is now taking the ultimate step of filing a lawsuit for yet-to-be-determined compensation for the humiliation and emotional suffering he endured.

His is a story that rings familiar to many travelers with disabilities. But fortunately, similar stories peppered with insensitivity, incompetence and disrespect are starting to get the attention of airline and federal officials.

Statistics speak volumes

Recent action by the U.S. Department of Transportation is calling attention to problems that air travelers with disabilities experience.

Starting in September 1999, DOT officials began breaking out statistics that count disability-related complaints in the agency's monthly Air Travel Consumer Report. The report, available on the Internet or by contacting the DOT, tracks things like flight and baggage problems, airport data and complaints from customers.

Disability complaints — lost or damaged wheelchairs, mishandled transfers and deficient customer service — made to DOT previously were lumped into the "reservation/ticketing/boarding" category. No longer.

"We just felt fundamentally that disability complaints are really civil rights complaints, and those shouldn't be grouped with seating problems or baggage problems," said Nancy McFadden, general counsel for DOT.

Some recent data: In January 2000, 59 disability complaints were received against 11 U.S. airlines, both large and small. In the previous month, December 1999, 40 disability complaints were received against at least 12 airlines. (Four of the 40 complaints fell into the "Other U.S. Airlines" category, covering companies that had fewer than five complaints of any type against them for the month.)

These complaint statistics don't show how many travelers have disabilities, so percentage comparisons are difficult. And consumers should keep in mind that the number of complaints will likely be proportionate to the volume of passengers each airline carries.

"But we believe that it [breaking out disability complaints] does provide useful information to disabled passengers and other passengers," said Samuel Podberesky, the DOT's assistant general counsel for aviation enforcement.

Disability complaints are investigated by the DOT for possible violations of the Air Carrier Access Act of 1986. The ACAA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in air travel and requires U.S. air carriers to accommodate the needs of passengers with disabilities.

Airlines found in violation can be fined, and the DOT even has the power to issue "cease and desist" orders. Last year, one-time fines as high as $50,000 were handed down in several disability-related situations, Podberesky said.

Breaking out the disability complaint statistics helps shine a spotlight on offending airlines, McFadden said, and a recently passed federal law will likely make such numbers even more interesting.

Air-21 to spotlight service problems

Reporting and publishing statistics is just one element of the recently passed Wendell H. Ford Aviation Investment and Reform Act for the 21st Century, nicknamed AIR-21.

AIR-21 mandates that now airlines will have to report any disability complaints they receive to the DOT, and the Secretary of Transportation in turn must regularly report them to Congress. That information will also be available to the public and be published in the Air Travel Consumer Report.

These numbers could be especially revealing, Podberesky said, as "we would suspect that airlines get 50 to 100 to even more complaints for every complaint that we receive."

AIR-21 includes a provision that increases the minimum penalties for ACAA violations from $1,100 to $10,000 per violation. AIR-21 also requires foreign carriers that share flights with domestic airlines to follow ACAA rules. In addition, the law requires that an outreach program be created to provide "technical assistance to air carriers and individuals with disabilities in understanding the rights and responsibilities" outlined by laws like AIR-21 and the ACAA.

"AIR-21 is a significant step in the direction of improving the situation for the disabled air traveler," Podberesky said.

Airline efforts toward change

Until the reach of the new legislation is felt, travelers with disabilities can also look for changing attitudes and policies of some U.S. airlines.

One example is the new Customer Advisory Board on Customers With Disabilities at Northwest Airlines. Allan Thieme is one of 10 board members who've met twice with a mission to "review the policies and procedures that Northwest presently has, and give suggestions for additions, improvements or changes to these policies and procedures, for people with disabilities who are traveling on the airlines," he said.

Thieme is president and founder of Amigo Mobility International, a scooter-manufacturing company he started after watching his wife, who was affected by multiple sclerosis, struggle with mobility.

He joins others from a variety of backgrounds, including people with sight and hearing impairments. Thieme said board members have heard there are similar groups and boards at other airlines, and hope to share information and combine efforts with them.

For travelers with mobility challenges, the two biggest problems appear to be damaged assistive equipment, and transferring individuals from their own wheelchairs to airline chairs or airplane seats, Thieme said.

And, it seems an underlying problem is communication: Passengers, airline employees and contract airport employees who handle tasks such as transfers and moving people between connecting flights, often aren't on the same page.

"What we have found is that there's some wonderful procedures and policies and training that Northwest has in place. But communicating them — how in the world do you get all this communicated to everybody — airline personnel and also to the disabled people?" Thieme said.

He said the board has discussed under taking an aggressive marketing effort to create awareness of travel issues and options for people with disabilities.

DOT officials agree that many airlines have outlined sensible policies and procedures regarding passengers with disabilities. Several airlines have even created "voluntary customer service plans" with the input of people with disabilities, organizations, and disabled-rights activists and experts, Podberesky said.

"I think they want to do this, and part of the reason is because the law is there and they've got to comply with the law," he said. "The other reason is because they don't want to turn away business. The disabled traveler is becoming a big part of the carriers' business."

Even in recent cases in which airlines received large fines for mistreating disabled customers, investigations showed employee training programs weren't at fault, Podberesky said.

"Because of that, what we think we see is not so much a failure in training, but just individual failures on the part of people who've been trained but may not be adequately motivated," he said. He cited workers in contract positions, which are often low paid and see high turnover.

At the same time, the DOT assures travelers with disabilities that it's keeping a close eye on complaints. It doesn't hesitate to take action when it discovers "a flagrant violation, or we've got a pattern, or we've got repeated instances of a carrier ignoring our counsel or guidance," McFadden said.

Podberesky said educational efforts and close work with the airlines are just as effective as fines. "I think we get more bang for the buck by making compliance efforts, going out to the airlines and explaining what they have to do," Podberesky said. "We meet with the large carriers on a monthly basis. The head of our consumer office has been visiting with carriers on a regular basis over the last several years, and disability issues are always at the top of his agenda."

And if federal budget dollars come through as planned, the DOT is looking forward to soon adding more than a dozen staff members to help keep track of airline compliance, which includes issues ranging from disability complaints to antitrust.


What to do if you encounter travel problems

Promising efforts are under way toward improving air travel for people with disabilities. Meantime, what do you do if you find yourself entangled in a travel mess like Nick Johnson's?

Expect the unexpected

Samuel Podberesky, the Department of Transportation's assistant general counsel for aviation enforcement, emphasized that preparation is invaluable before your departure day, such as knowing an airline's policies or reading DOT's "New Horizons" booklet. (Read more air travel tips in "How to Fly Through the Air with the Greatest of Ease" in Quest, vol. 7, no. 2.) Communicate and make your needs known every step of the way, from the reservationist to flight attendants and baggage handlers, he said.

Overall, be ready for anything, Johnson advised.

"One of the things that got me upset was, it caught me off guard," he said. "Just be ready, anything can happen."

Call the CRO

If you can't get a satisfactory resolution on the spot, ask for the airline's CRO — the Complaint Resolution Official.

The ACAA mandates a CRO on every airline staff, and that person must be readily available at airports to try to solve travel problems.

"Every airline is required to have them, and that person is supposed to resolve any issues that arise on the spot if it's at the airport," Podberesky said. "That doesn't mean the complainant is going to get what they want — they may be entitled to it, they may not be. But they'll get a final determination by somebody who knows what the rules are and knows what the airline is required to do."

If that doesn't lead to satisfaction, file a complaint with the airline, which usually means writing a letter to a designated department. File your complaint within a reasonable amount of time, usually 45 days after the flight, and the airline must respond within a reasonable amount of time.

"If that process doesn't lead to a resolution, they then obviously have the right to sue on their own, and a right to file a complaint here with the department. Under our rules here, we will investigate the complaint," he said.

Complaints to the DOT can be filed by e-mail, and complaint forms can be downloaded from the department's Web site. Be aware that, at some point, you'll likely have to write up the sequence of events in a letter to assist investigators, he said.

Johnson said he considered filing a complaint with the DOT, but preferred to confront the airline directly. He recommends following the airline's complaint process, but sending a copy of any letters detailing the events to the airline's top executives.

"Some people send letters directly to the chairman, and I mailed it to him separate so I know it did go to his office," Johnson said.

Things are looking up

However, the next time he traveled with the airline in question, service had improved drastically, Johnson said. "It was better. It was apparent that my name had been flagged, because when they were looking at the computer and I was checking in, it was obvious that all of a sudden there was a lot of attention on me," Johnson said. "That was kind of the point — not just me, but people with challenges should be helped when it's possible. They shouldn't be kind of shunned or put in the back of the bus."

Despite the humiliation he suffered, Johnson said he still prefers to focus on the positive side. "People with physical challenges should be extremely excited about the future," Johnson said. "This problem with air travel is miniscule compared with the opportunities that people are going to have in the next 10 or 20 years. It's minor.

"Whenever you're stranded in an airport, whether you're in a wheelchair or not, you should think of that and say, well, this, too, shall pass."

To read airline complaint statistics

See the Department of Transportation's Air Travel Consumer Report at http://airconsumer.dot.gov.

Write to: Office of Aviation Enforcement and Proceedings
400 Seventh St., SW, Room 4107
Washington, DC 20590

To file a complaint

There are several ways to file an accessibility or discrimination complaint with the Department of Transportation:

Call and leave a recorded message at (202) 366-2220.

Download a specific complaint form for a disability-related event at: http://airconsumer.dot.gov/CP_DisabilityandDiscrimination.htm.

Send the complaint form or other correspondence to:
U.S. Department of Transportation
Aviation Consumer Protection Division, C-75-D
400 Seventh St., SW
Washington, DC 20590

E-mail airconsumer@ost.dot.gov. Whether you call, write or e-mail, be brief and concise in the description of your problem and be sure to include the following information:

  • your name, address and daytime phone number, including area code
  • The name of the airline or company about which you're complaining
  • The flight date, flight number, and origin and destination cities of your trip

If you write, include a copy of your airline ticket (not the original) and any correspondence you've already exchanged with the airline.

For additional travel information

You can read the booklet, "New Horizons: Information for the Air Traveler with a Disability."

To read about an individual airline's policies or procedures regarding passengers with disabilities, or passengers traveling with wheelchairs or other assistive devices, check the airline's Web site or call its information line.

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