The Disabled Traveler Is Making Headway in the Skies

Air travel for the disabled has improved, but a National Council on Disability report shows there's still some way to go.
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The so-called friendly skies can be anything but for disabled airline passengers. Insensitive and untrained airline personnel, damage to wheelchairs and other special equipment and a lack of proper accommodations are among the problems the disabled have encountered on U.S. carriers, according to a report issued earlier this year by the

National Council on Disability

.

Believe it or not, the service for these fliers has improved over the years. "It's a lot better than it used to be for the disabled on airplanes," says Carol Randall of

Access-Able Travel Service

, an Internet

site based in Wheat Ridge, Colo., that provides information and assistance to disabled and senior citizen travelers. Randall, who travels by using a motorized scooter, and other disabled travel agents and activists say the airlines have become more aware of the needs of disabled travelers and have tried to implement policies that cater to them.

"Some of the airlines have done a pretty good job of addressing the problems," she says. "But in other ways, there still needs to be a whole lot of improvement and more understanding from the airlines and their employees."

Under the 1986

Air Carrier Access Act

, disabled travelers are supposed to receive "equal" treatment to other passengers. But the report by the National Council on Disability, which was sent to

Congress

and to

President Clinton

last spring, found that from 1990 to 1997 the

Department of Transportation

failed to adequately pursue 1,831 complaints filed by disabled passengers for alleged violations of the 13-year-old law.

Congress has taken notice. The

Federal Aviation Administration

appropriations bill that passed the

House of Representatives

in May and is pending in the

Senate

increases the fine airlines must pay for not complying with the act from $1,000 to a maximum of $10,000. It's unclear, however, if the bill will pass in its present form. And President Clinton has threatened to veto it because some of the spending provisions in the bill aren't related to the increase in fines.

For its part, the Department of Transportation has requested more funding to investigate complaints by disabled passengers.

The airlines do try to cater to and assist passengers with disabilities, says Tim Daly, of Baltimore, who operates

Access Travel

, a company that books trips for the disabled. "All the airlines have good policies for disabled passengers," he says. Daly himself contracted a neurological disorder that results in poor coordination because of a 1994 heart attack.

But Daly thinks the problem lies in a disconnect between the policies that airline management makes and their implementation by employees who work on planes and in various airports. "Management is very aware of the laws and the requirements regarding disabled passengers," he says. "But it's not always apparent that the people working on the flights and in the airports are trained on how to deal with disabled passengers."

Randall echoes the same concern. "You find a lot of inconsistency at the airport and once you get in the air," she admits. "The policies are good, but the information isn't getting down to the flight attendants, the ticket agents and the baggage handlers."

For an example, we looked at the "special needs" policy of Phoenix-based

America West Airlines

(AWA)

. Listed on the airline's Web site, the policy covers a wide range of topics dealing with disabled passengers and offers several suggestions to travelers when they book a flight, from how to travel with seeing-eye dogs to guidelines and restrictions for taking equipment like wheelchairs and ventilators on planes.

Other suggestions offered by America West and other airlines include:

  • Tell the booking agent what type of assistance you'll need to board a plane and if you'll be traveling with a companion who will assist you.
  • Ask the agent about the airplane you'll be booked on to make sure it can accommodate the disabled.
  • If you need a wheelchair on board, you must notify the airline at least 48 hours before the flight departs.
  • If you're changing planes on your America West trip or making a connection to another airline, your reservation should allow up to two hours between flights depending on the size of the airport.

"All employees in our customer service areas complete a special-needs training program to better assist those with disabilities," America West claims on its site. "However, the more information you provide to our agents, the better we can serve you." Providing that information, Randall says, is the key to a pleasant, no-hassle flight for someone with a disability. She makes sure she provides the airline with plenty of information, including that she travels with a motorized scooter. "I even tape all my instructions to my scooter, just to remind people of what I need," Randall says.

"You have to give the airlines a bit of a break," she says. "I don't like some of the things they do and some of the stuff that goes on with the disabled, but I don't take any chances when I travel."

Two of the most common problems Randall encounters are waiting a long time for her scooter to be unloaded once the plane is on the ground, and being unable to have the scooter during a layover. "The airlines will provide you with a wheelchair and an attendant to push you," she says. "But they don't always show up on time. Besides, not having your own motorized wheelchair or scooter takes away your independence. I like to get out in an airline terminal and get something to eat or go to the restroom like anybody else, but the disabled don't always have that freedom in an airport."

Under federal law, U.S. airlines are required to have a conflict resolution officer, or CRO, available either in person or on the telephone to handle disputes and problems, Daly explains. "The CRO's job is to listen to both sides and then decide who is right," he says. "Moreover, you're entitled to get the CRO's decision in writing. However, the passenger must ask. Airline personnel aren't obligated to initiate this process."

Daly cites U.S. census figures that say 39 million of the nation's 54 million disabled residents believe travel is too troublesome. But it shouldn't be that way, he contends. "Travel can add to the self-esteem of anyone, but especially people with disabilities," Daly says "I think that's often the biggest and hidden benefit for the disabled traveler and seniors. Travel is like a microcosm of life; you're constantly faced with adapting, changing plans and that ability to adapt increases one's self-confidence."

To get a free copy of the Air Carrier Access Act, send your name and address to: Paralyzed Veterans of America, 801 18th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20006, or call 888-860-7244.

Patrick Crowley is a political reporter and columnist for The Cincinnati Enquirer. At time of publication, he held no position in any securities mentioned, although holdings can change at any time. Crowley can be reached at

crowleys@cinci.infi.net.