Saturday, February 5, 2011

More disabled travelers complaining about airlines

From Minneapolis Star Tribune:

While her nurses were stowing the 100 pounds of medical equipment she needs to travel with, Carrie Salberg was given a startling order: Get off the plane.

Salberg, who has muscular dystrophy, was never told why she couldn't use the ventilator she requires to breathe on the Jan. 13 flight that was supposed to carry her home to Minneapolis-St. Paul from New Orleans. Just a month before the flight, Delta Air Lines said her equipment met the company's requirements.

"It was humiliating, it was upsetting, it was embarrassing," said Salberg, 33. "We just did what we were told. We didn't really have much of a choice."

Salberg's story illustrates the confusing landscape of federal regulations and airline policies that confronts travelers with disabilities. The Air Carrier Access Act, established in 1986, prohibits discrimination against someone with disabilities during air travel, provided any necessary medical equipment is approved according to in-flight rules. But disabled travelers are increasingly complaining about their rights being violated.

In 2009, disabled passengers filed 17,068 complaints against airlines, up 22 percent from the previous year, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. In 178 cases, airlines refused to let disabled passengers board a plane, according to complaint data.

Recent changes to the federal rules governing the travel of disabled persons have in some cases misfired.

For instance, a 2009 rule was supposed to simplify the process for determining which medical equipment was approved for in-flight use. Instead of forcing crew members to inspect devices to see if they met various criteria, each approved item would come with a sticker showing it met Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requirements.

But the federal government never authorized anyone to make the stickers, so a traveler like Salberg with approved equipment has to prove repeatedly that it meets regulations.

"They made this rule to make it easier,"said Michael Luber, a Milwaukee man who was unable to fly in May 2009 because of his ventilator. "The problem is ... they don't have stickers and it's been a year and a half."

Luber said it's been frustrating, but "we're a minority. Who's going to pay attention to the one in a million flying with a ventilator?"

In April, the U.S. Department of Transportation plans to revisit the rules and is considering eliminating the labeling requirement.

Salberg waited years to be able to travel because the equipment she needs to breathe wasn't portable. Since 2005, she has taken cruises and gone to Mexico.

"It's a lot of work and a lot of planning, and getting on and off the plane is pretty much the worst part of a trip," said Salberg. "But it's worth it."

While planning her trip to New Orleans, Salberg and her mother contacted Delta to make sure they understood the airline's rules for medical equipment. Salberg also had a certificate of compliance from the manufacturer.

Her flight to New Orleans went smoothly. She even got a free upgrade to first class.

Salberg's problems began shortly before takeoff on her return flight. As one of her nurses lugged a 25-pound battery on board, she was stopped and told that the pilot needed to inspect it.

Salberg, who was already in her seat, said she couldn't tell the flight crew she already had airline approval because she didn't have the device she needs to speak. Crew members were shown the compliance letter and told Salberg had flown previously, but those reassurances were brushed off.

Instead of a direct flight, which Salberg had paid extra for, her group was put on a flight to Atlanta, delaying their arrival in Minneapolis by about five hours. The delay meant Salberg couldn't drink anything because she isn't able to use a public restroom.

"It's more than just an inconvenience," Salberg said. "It can be a matter of health when they make decisions like that."