DOT

American Airlines vs. the Vet

Earlier this week, for a story on msnbc.com’s Overhead Bin, I talked with Dawn Wilcox, a disabled veteran from Kileen, Texas who claims American Airlines employees did not help her when she told them she needed to use the restroom on a flight between LaGuardia Airport and Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport last Saturday, Oct. 29.

Wilcox said she had informed the flight attendants shortly before landing that she needed to be taken off the plane first so that she could go to the bathroom.

“They landed and started letting people off,” said Wilcox. “I said, ‘Ma’am, I’m really about to go in my pants.’ I was almost in tears. They’d already let three quarters of the people off and it was too late, I’d already wet my pants.”

In a statement about the incident, American Airlines said it reached out to Wilcox and apologized to her for her “discomfort and overall experience with us.” But the airline also said it was looking into this event further because flight attendants reported a different version of the story.

On Wednesday, an American Airlines representative got in touch with me to let me know what their investigation turned up.

Here’s their statement:

Since Ms. Wilcox’s request came during the aircraft’s decent into DFW – a time when everyone must remain seated for safety – American’s flight attendants offered specific assistance to Ms. Wilcox, telling her they would use the special, onboard wheelchair (they are carried onboard all our aircraft) to take her to one of the aircraft lavatories just as soon as the aircraft reached the gate and before any other passengers deplaned.

Ms. Wilcox declined that offer of assistance, saying she preferred to use her personal wheelchair to reach a restroom in the terminal. Flight attendants reminded her that her wheelchair was stowed in the cargo compartment of the aircraft and that it would take some time to unload it and bring it up to her – which would further compound her urgent need to get to a restroom. Ms. Wilcox nonetheless insisted on waiting for her personal wheelchair.

There are other facts about Ms. Wilcox’s travel, while not directly related to the onboard incident described above, that call into question the credibility of her public statements and allegations.”

Those “other facts,” including the discovery that Wilcox requested and received a bereavement fare to attend a family funeral that was not happening, do seem to poke some holes in this story.

Perhaps the Department of Transportation will end up doing its own inquiry of this incident.

In the meantime, here’s a link to the DOT rules that spell out the responsibilities of travelers, airlines and airports regarding the needs of disabled fliers.

The DOT’s new 3-hour rule: what you need to know

(Denver Airport – courtesy Gregory Thow)

A new set of DOT rules go into effect today promising a wide variety of protections for airline travelers.  As I outlined in an msnbc.com column, Something for everyone in the DOT rules, these regulations offer quite a bit more than just the assurance that passengers will be let off a plane if a delay stretches into the three-hour range.

Here’s just a bit of what you need to know:

Stuck on an airplane?

With a few security-related exemptions, an airline must now let you off  a plane by the three-hour point of a tarmac delay.  After two hours, though, the DOT now requires airlines to offer you some water and a little something – maybe pretzels or a granola bar – to eat.  Even if you’re on one of those small, regional carriers.

Each airline must also now have contingency plans in place and those plans need to be posted on an airline’s website. Airlines have more leeway with these plans for international flights – so comparing plans before you buy tickets could be useful.

Got a beef?

To make sure you can file a complaint, airlines must now post e-mail, Web and snail-mail addresses on their Web sites, e-ticket confirmations, and at ticket counters and boarding gates. And no more sending those complaints to the ‘circular file.’ The DOT now requires airlines to answer your complaint within 60 days.

There’s more.  So I urge you read the full column – Something for everyone in the DOT rules – so you know what to expect.

Don’t worry, be happy

And, for those of you worried that the three-hour rule means you’ll be marooned at an airport once you’re let off a delayed plane, airport officials say: “Don’t worry.”

Airport directors I spoke with for a USATODAY.com column – Are airports ready for the three hour rule? – say most every airport, even small ones currently excluded from the new DOT rules, has plans and equipment in place to help airlines comply with the new rules and to accommodate passengers let back into the terminal after a 3-hour delay.

We’ll just have to wait and see what happens next.

What’s there for you in DOT’s new tarmac-delay rule?

Yes, the Department of Transportation’s new rule taking effect April 29 promises stiff penalties for airlines that strand passengers inside idling airplanes for more than three hours.

But look closer at the 81-page document detailing DOT’s new Enhancing Airline Passenger Protections rule, and you’ll find other regulations that apply more broadly. They require carriers to be more truthful about flight delays and take more responsibility when things go wrong.

No time to read the entire document? No problem. In an msnbc.com column this week Something for everyone in DOT rules, I outline some of the highlights of the DOT legislation that might just make a difference on your next trip.

Make, share and stick to plans

There’s that three-hour rule. There’s also a two-hour rule.

With a few security-related exemptions, an airline must allow customers to get off the plane — or risk receiving fines of up to $27,500 per passenger — at the three-hour point of a tarmac delay.

After two hours, DOT will require airlines to give passengers “some type of food [i.e. pretzels or granola bars], potable water, working lavatories and, if necessary, medical care.”

These rules apply to major U.S. carriers as well as the small regional carriers you might fly due to code sharing arrangements.

Airlines must also have contingency plans in place, and the plans must be coordinated and shared with the airports regularly used by the carriers, as well as with any medium- or large-hub airports likely to receive diverted flights.

Those plans also need to appear on airline Web sites.

No more ignoring passenger complaints

Have a beef about an airline experience?  Who doesn’t?

Recognizing that some airlines make it difficult for customers to file complaints, the DOT will now require airlines to post information about how and where to file complaints on e-ticket confirmations and at ticket counters and boarding gates.

And airlines must now acknowledge a complaint within 30 days and provide “a substantive response” — something that addresses a customer’s specific complaint — within 60 days.

What else is in the rule? And what’s next?

You can read more about the passenger protections the DOT is rolling out in my column  Something for everyone in DOT rules, where you’ll find a link to the 81-page DOT rule itself. Take a look and then you can decide for yourself if you think the rules will make a difference or, as some industry experts predict, will just cause more problems.

And don’t think DOT is finished with its rulemaking for airline consumer protections. According to a statement posted on his Fast Lane blog in December, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood is determined to protect air travelers even further.