Travelers with disabilities

Airlines, airports still a challenge for travelers with disabilities

ADA IMAGE

To mark the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act, last month the Open Doors Organization (ODO) released the findings of a new study looking at the impact the disability travel market has on the industry and the broader economy.

A follow up to similar studies the group conducted in 2002 and 2005, this year’s study found that in the past two years alone, more than 26 million adults with disabilities traveled for pleasure and/or business, taking 73 million trips and spending $17.3 billion annually (up from $13.6 billion in 2002) on those trips.

ODO points out that “[s]ince these individuals typically travel with one or more other adults, the economic impact is actually double, or $34.6 billion.”

The number of travelers in this group and the money they spend on travel is large – and, as the population ages – surely getting larger. Yet the study, conducted for ODO by Mandala Research, found that while there have been some improvements, unnecessary barriers still exist.

For example, among adults with disabilities who have traveled by air, 72 percent said they encountered major obstacles with airlines and 65 percent with airports, down from 84 percent and 82 percent in 2005, respectively.

“When we carried out our first nationwide study in 2002, the goal was to wake up the travel industry to the importance of this mostly under-served market segment and give them hard numbers on which to base investment decisions,” said ODO director Eric Lipp.

“Now 13 years later, our economic impact is no longer a secret, especially in air travel. At large airports like Miami and Minneapolis/St. Paul, airlines now must provide more than 1 million wheelchair assists per year. And as the Baby Boomers continue to age, you can be sure our market will keep growing for years to come,” he said.

The ODO report goes beyond airports and airlines to explore travel patterns, spending levels and the physical, customer-service and communication obstacles encountered by people with disabilities in hotels and restaurants and on cruises and ground transportation, including ride-share services.

Interested in finding out more? The non-profit ODO has copies of the full study available for sale.

Horizon Air president apologizes to mistreated passenger

Over the weekend, a Bend, Ore., man took to Facebook to describe the incivility he alleged was inflicted on a fellow passenger on an Horizon Air flight out of Oregon’s Redmond Municipal Airport.

Cameron Clark witnessed what he described on Facebook as “the worst of humanity” when airline staff on duty appeared to ignore and refuse special assistance to a couple he thought was “disabled/mentally and physically challenged.”

Clark estimated the couple to be in their 70s and said that the man later told him he had late-stage Parkinson’s disease, that his companion had MS and that he was trying to get to Bellingham, Wash., to see his daughter.

“He had a hard time walking,” Clark wrote on Facebook, “No one offered him a wheelchair or asked how they could be helpful. He stumbled off toward the safety inspection line. Predictably, he didn’t understand/comprehend their restriction of his luggage, and got stuck in security.”

Throughout the weekend, Clark’s Facebook post created a flurry of negative and outraged comments, which Alaska Airlines responded to with a series of Facebook posts of its own.

I spoke with Alaska Airlines spokesperson Paul McElroy on Monday morning and he told me that while the passenger did not get on his Friday flight, he did fly Saturday and is visiting with his daughter at an alternate location. McElroy said the airline refunded the passenger’s initial ticket price and provided complimentary round-trip transportation for his trip.

“There are things we should have done better,” said McElroy, who added that the president of Horizon Airlines was preparing a post to that effect. (Regional airline Horizon Air and Alaska Airlines are both owned by the Alaska Air Group, which is based in Seattle.)

Coincidentally, on Monday the airline was meeting with Eric Lipp, the executive director of Open Doors Organization, an independent disability advocacy group. “We’re going to leverage their visit and ask them to help us review what we did with this customer to see if we could have done better,” McElroy said.

Lipp said there are laws to help passengers with disabilities and extra services that airlines can and are willing to provide. “But the law says the passenger has to self-identify,” said Lipp. “Otherwise, it’s a puzzle. The breakdown here is that the passenger didn’t self-identify and the airline didn’t have the right codes in the system to get him services he was entitled to.”

Lipp had other advice for passengers with disabilities and much of it was rolled into the apology Horizon Air president Glenn Johnson posted on Facebook on Monday afternoon. Here’s part of that statement, which includes some helpful tips.

“…First and foremost, we’ve determined that we could and should have handled this better and I apologize to our passenger on behalf of all of us at Horizon Air and Alaska Airlines. This experience has reminded us of the importance of assisting passengers with disabilities and making sure every one of them receives the special care they may need.

The information we’ve gathered during our review will certainly improve our efforts going forward.”

…Alaska and Horizon have partnered with Open Doors Organization, an independent disability advocacy group, to review employees’ handling of the situation and suggest improvements in the airlines’ disability, awareness and sensitivity training. Eric Lipp, Open Doors Organization’s executive director, advises passengers with a disability who are traveling to:

  • Self-disclose to the airline any assistance you may need before you arrive at the airport. This could include an escort or wheelchair assistance through security, to the gate, and while boarding and exiting the plane.
  • Ask the airline if you prefer to have a personal assistant escort you to the gate. Most airlines will issue passes to personal assistants to help passengers with disabilities get to or from the gate area.
  • Plan ahead and arrive at the airport at least 90 minutes before your flight departs, which allows time to check luggage, obtain wheelchair services, get through security and board the flight.

(Part of this post first appeared in my NBC News story Witness blasts Alaska Airlines for treatment of fellow passenger.

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.

Universal access at airports: it could happen

My “At the Airport” column for USATODAY.com this month is about what airports and airlines are doing – or not – to make it easier for people with disabilities to make their way through airports.

Researching the story was an educational and quite sobering experience.

And as the column title says: Travelers with disabilities face obstacles at airports.

Sadly, that’s the case far too often at far too many airports. But if you read through the column a bit, you’ll see that there have been some improvements.  And a lot of those fixes end up making it easier for everyone to travel.

Here’s most of that column:

With laws such as the Air Carrier Access Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act, you might assume that people with disabilities no longer encounter obstacles at U.S. airports.

Unfortunately, that’s not true. “Frankly, there isn’t enough policing going on to go look at all these airports to see if they’re 100% compliant,” notes Tim Joniec of the Houston Airport System. “So at some airports it may take a traveler complaining about a service that isn’t there before attention is paid to a problem.”

And even if a traveler does lodge a complaint, “you’d be surprised at how many airports, including some enormous ones, just don’t care,” says Eric Lipp, the executive director of the Open Doors Organization (ODO), a non-profit that works with businesses and the disability community.

For those that do care, next month the Open Doors Organization (ODO) and the International Air Transport Association (IATA) will host a conference about universal access in airports. On the agenda: tools, technology and training to help both airports and airlines do a better job of serving travelers with disabilities.

One topic sure to be discussed is money. About 55 million people in this country have some sort of disability. This community spends upwards of $14 billion a year on travel; more than $3 billion a year on airplane tickets alone.

With medical care and life expectancy improving, the number of travelers with disabilities is predicted to increase to more than 80 million in the next 20 years. Yet, when the Open Doors Organization surveyed adults with disabilities about travel, more than 80% reported encountering obstacles at airports and with airline personnel.

Universal access universally helpful

Lipp and others point out that removing obstacles at airports makes traveling easier for all passengers, not just those with disabilities. And there are plenty of examples of how making changes makes sense.

Curb cuts help those with strollers and wheeled luggage as much as they assist travelers using wheelchairs, walkers, canes or scooters. Family bathrooms are great for parents traveling with small children, but special lavatories at airports also offer grab bars and other amenities that a disabled traveler, or one traveling with an attendant, might find useful. Many general-use airport bathrooms are cleaner due to ADA-compliant self-flush toilets, automatic faucets and motion-sensing paper towel dispensers. And weave-through entryways reduce germs by eliminating the need for everyone to grab the door handle.

Visual-paging systems, like the high-tech ones now installed airport-wide at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, were originally created to assist hearing-impaired passengers. But all passengers can benefit from having an additional way to receive emergency messages and courtesy pages.

And of course, air passengers must be able to get to the gate before they can fly.

At George Bush Intercontinental Airport, passengers must now either walk or negotiate elevators, escalators or a bus when trying to reach Terminal A from Terminal B. That barrier will disappear in October when the airport’s above-ground train finally links Terminal A to the other four terminals. “Those with mobility challenges will certainly benefit from this,” says the airport’s Tim Joniec, “But because 70% of our passengers make a connection at IAH, this will definitely be noticed by all travelers.”

Some airlines embrace universal access

Airlines, which are responsible for providing wheelchair services at airports, have also made some special accommodations that end up smoothing out the journey for all passengers.

If you travel with a pet, you’ve probably noticed more fenced, landscaped animal relief areas at airports. Those pet parks are popping up because the Carrier Access Act now requires airlines to make relief areas available for service dogs accompanying travelers.

Alaska Airlines/Horizon Air often uses ramps instead of stairs to board all passengers, not just those using wheelchairs, onto smaller Horizon planes at gates where jet bridges are unavailable. “That way no one has to negotiate steep steps to and from the airplane and everyone can enter the airplane the same way,” says Ray Prentice, Alaska Airlines’ director of Customer Advocacy.

And for the past three years, Continental Airlines (which will legally merge with United Airlines on October 1st) has been getting feedback and advice from a thirteen member advisory board made up of passengers with disabilities.

Before the board was in place, the airline would wait for a passenger with a disability to complain about an access issue before a policy would get tweaked.  Continental’s disability programs manager Bill Burnell says “Now we can anticipate problem areas before they become complaints. And try to go beyond the minimum ADA requirements. We’ve learned there’s a big difference between something being ADA compliant and it being universally accessible.”