Passengers with disabilities have filed approximately 900 formal complaints against U.S. airlines in the past year, according to a News4 I-Team review of federal transportation records.
The complaints were an increase from prior years and were filed during a time period in which the federal government reviewed several new requirements for airlines to better serve passengers with disabilities.
The U.S. Transportation Department tracks the number of complaints filed against U.S. air carriers, including those referencing access issues for the disabled. An I-Team review of 2019 and 2018 federal data shows an approximately 10 percent increase in those complaints between October 2017 and September 2019.
The agency also recently began publicly reporting the number of complaints it receives about mishandled or damaged wheelchairs and mobility devices. The I-Team review found approximately 1,000 complaints each month, impacting between 1 and 2 percent of all wheelchairs and devices transported on flights by U.S. operating airlines.
“There has to be more training about various disabilities and the various needs,” said Deepa Goraya, an advocate with Disability Rights Maryland.
Goraya said passengers with disabilities face a series of increasing challenges, including the size of seats, aisles and restrooms aboard planes.
“Seats should definitely be wider for people needing to transfer out of wheelchairs,” she said.
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Amid the rising complaints, Congress passed a law in 2018 requiring a series of reviews and protections for the disabled community. The federal government has since announced the launch of an advisory committee to assess barriers to air travel for passengers with disabilities. The committee is expected to hold its first public meeting in January, according to the Paralyzed Veterans of America, which advocated for the stronger federal requirements.
The U.S. government also announced it is studying new systems for transporting wheelchairs, including the feasibility of restrain systems so passengers can remain in their wheelchairs while on flights.
Plus, the federal government is also performing a study into the accessibility of airports to passengers with wheelchairs and mobility challenges.
Charles Brown, a former U.S. Marine paralyzed in an accident 35 years ago, said he has suffered a series of incidents while traveling aboard commercial airlines. Brown said flight workers dropped him earlier this year while attempting to move him from his wheelchair to a smaller mobile chair seat used to carry passengers down the narrow aisles of airplanes. The fall broke his tailbone and triggered a months-long infection and hospitalization, Brown said.
“That person didn't really know how to do a transfer the right way, which subsequently caused the accident and the injury,” Brown said.
The Paralyzed Veterans of America and other advocacy groups have urged airlines and regulators to require better training for airline employees who work with passengers with disabilities and handle wheelchairs.
“The flying is not the problem," Brown said. "It's actually getting on and off the aircraft and making sure that your wheelchair will be there or your mobility device will be there in one piece and you can function.”
Airlines for America, a trade organization representing major airlines, issued a statement to the I-Team: "The airline industry is committed to offering a high level of customer service and works hard to provide a positive flight experience for all passengers, especially those in need of additional assistance."
The ACAA Advisory Committee will meet on March 10 and 11.
Reported by Scott MacFarlane, produced by Rick Yarborough, and shot and edited by Jeff Piper.