Who Ya Gonna Call When Air Travel Goes Bad?

by Bill Norman on July 1, 2009 - 1:43pm

QUEST Vol. 16, No. 3

Traveling by air can be a nightmare when a traveler’s special needs run up against an inflexible, unsympathetic bureaucracy — as Julianna Dombrowski of Greenacres, Fla., found out the hard way.

In July last year, Dombrowski, 54, booked a Delta Airlines trip from West Palm Beach to visit family in Harrisburg, Pa., with a connecting flight in Atlanta.

At first it didn’t seem problematic. Dombrowski, who has limb-girdle muscular dystrophy, can walk with care but requires a wheelchair ride in airports because she’s easily knocked over in a crowd.

Problems developed when her flight was late getting to Atlanta. Things got worse when she realized she would have to exit the plane down a steep flight of steps more than 100 yards from the terminal.

Dombrowski had arranged for a wheelchair and attendant to meet her on arrival in Atlanta, but they hadn’t shown up.

The Delta flight crew was anxious to fly on. Dombrowski said she wasn’t moving until her wheelchair arrived. The Delta crew was not happy.

Finally, an attendant arrived with a manual wheelchair.

But neither the attendant nor crew were willing to help Dombrowski down the stairs.

“They all had the same line,” she said. “It’s not my job.”

In desperation, she got down on her hands and knees and crawled backward down the steep steps.

Did she make her connecting flight? No. Her attendant wasn’t willing to push her the additional distance to her gate. She wound up sitting in the terminal for nearly six hours waiting for another flight.

After more people determined it wasn’t their job to help her, she broke down and began crying, winning some help for a badly needed trip to the restroom and a bite to eat.

Once safely in Harrisburg, she fired off an overnight letter to Delta. But before they contacted her, the news media picked up her story. Delta reached her in a hurry after that, but said they couldn’t find her letter … would she mind faxing them a copy of it?

Eventually, Delta apologized profusely and gave her $300 toward a future flight, the cell phone number of an upper-level manager, and an invitation to help improve their customer service procedures.

Who ya gonna call?

Complaint Resolution Officers (CROs) As Dombrowski learned, insist on speaking to a CRO. Each airline is required to have one available.

U.S. Department of Transportation/Air Carrier Access Act hotline. (800) 778-4838; http://airconsumer.ost.dot.gov/ACAAcomplaint.htm; or Aviation Consumer Protection Division, U.S. Department of Transportation, Room 4107, 400 7th St. S.W., Washington, D.C., 20590.

Avoid hassles Before boarding, remind the gate or ticket counter agent about your needs at other airports. Ground agents are better able than flight attendants to arrange services at airports.

Respiratory equipment alert

Attention air travelers using ventilators, respirators and other electronic respiratory assistive devices: Effective May 19, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) requires such equipment to carry a manufacturer’s label certifying it meets FAA standards for electromagnetic and radio frequency emissions. In addition, passengers may be required to have enough battery power to last 150 percent of the scheduled flight time.  Commercial airlines can deny boarding if these requirements aren’t met, or can refuse to allow the equipment to be used during the flight.For a label, contact your respiratory equipment manufacturer. For more about these regulations, contact the DOT (see above), or check out Quest Extra at www.mda.org/questmagazineonline.

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