November 4, 2013

U.S. Airways fined $1.2 million for wheelchair complaints

US Airways has agreed to pay $1.2 million in fines because it provided inadequate wheelchair service at the Charlotte and Philadelphia airports, leading to delays and even missed flights for disabled passengers, officials said Monday.

The U.S. Department of Transportation said it examined more than 300 complaints from passengers in Charlotte and Philadelphia from 2011 and 2012. About half of those were in Charlotte. The DOT said that was “only a sample” of the violations it uncovered at both airports.

US Airways uses electric carts and wheelchairs to move disabled passengers between gates. While the airline contracts with a company in Charlotte to help disabled passengers outside the security checkpoints, US Airways employees move passengers within the secure parts of the airport.

The airline’s system led to multiple transfers, delays and passengers left unattended for long periods, the DOT said. “A number of the complaints that we reviewed involved egregious violations, including passengers missing connecting flights because of inadequate connecting assistance,” the DOT wrote in its order on the fine.

The DOT provided the Observer with some of the complaints, with names removed for privacy reasons. In one, filed in October 2011, a passenger flying from Houston to Charlotte complained of long waits for a wheelchair when they arrived.

“When I arrived in Charlotte NC it took 25 minutes for someone to come get me,” the person wrote. “Then I was taken to another located (sic) and was told that I needed to wait another 20-30 mins for someone else to come get me.” The passenger ended up waiting for an hour before being helped.

US Airways spokeswoman Michelle Mohr said the airline has taken steps to resolve the problems. Those measures include hiring more staff at both airports to help disabled people, giving employees with wheelchairs signs to hold with passengers’ names on them to help them locate each other, and creating a weekly report to track service for disabled passengers.

“US Airways takes our responsibility to provide safe, reliable and convenient travel for passengers with disabilities seriously, and has made significant improvements to our disability assistance program,” Mohr said in a statement. The new measures to help disabled passengers cost US Airways about $2 million a year, Mohr said.

The DOT said US Airways is being credited with $500,000 toward the fine because of the measures it has already taken. The other $700,000 is due within the next 30 days.

US Airways is the largest carrier at Charlotte Douglas International Airport, where it operates more than 600 daily flights.

Federal law requires airlines to help passengers with disabilities move within airport terminals. The DOT said its fine against US Airways was one of the largest it has issued to an airline on a disabilities-related issue.

Allen Bellman, 89, told the Observer he almost missed his US Airways connection when he changed planes in Charlotte in May. Bellman, a comic book artist, was returning to his home in Florida from a convention in Alabama with his wife. He had expected a wheelchair to meet them at the plane.

“There was no one there to meet us at the entrance to the plane with a wheelchair,” said Bellman, who said he has six stents in his heart. “They said you have to go up the ramp.”

After hauling his bag up the enclosed ramp, Bellman said he and his wife boarded an electric cart. They were dropped off a short distance away and told to wait for a wheelchair, Bellman said.

“Standing and standing,” Bellman said, recalling his experience. “Nobody comes to us. Nobody cares.”

Despite repeatedly requesting a wheelchair, Bellman said one didn’t come until he had almost missed his flight to Fort Lauderdale, the last of the night. He said he was admonished by an airport or airline employee for raising his voice while asking for a wheelchair, and had to plead with an airport police officer to get help.

“This was heartless, heartless,” said Bellman, who did make his flight and was offered a $100 voucher from US Airways. “That hurt to be treated that way.”

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