Friday, December 19, 2008

Detroit Airport in violation of federal disability access laws

From the Detroit Free Press:

Detroit Metro Airport's McNamara Terminal (pictured) is in violation of numerous federal disability requirements, according to a report filed in federal court this week.

The assessment was conducted in November on behalf of five passengers who sued Northwest Airlines and the Wayne County Airport Authority in U.S. District Court in April, alleging they discriminated against people with disabilities by denying them equal access to air travel.

Gary Talbot, an accessibility expert for the defendants, said he found incorrect slopes on curb ramps outside the terminal, bad placement of accessible parking spaces in the McNamara garage, improper signage and jet bridges that have slopes that are too steep. Additionally, moving walkways not designed for wheelchair use are sometimes the only option to move through the parking garage.

Talbot, who is now the assistant general manager for system-wide accessibility for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, said many Americans with Disability Act requirements were ignored, and others were met at a bare minimum.

The jet bridge problem was the biggest surprise, Talbot said. He said the bridges to the aircraft are level when they extend to a 747, but way too steep for smaller aircraft.

Talbot, who uses a wheelchair and is originally from Ann Arbor, said he has personally had difficulties with the slopes around the airport.

"I almost flipped over in a wheelchair trying to get up these ridiculous slopes," he said.

The passengers also allege in the lawsuit that airline personnel dropped disabled passengers to the floor, denied them accessible parking, damaged wheelchairs by tossing them in baggage storage and failed to provide an area for guide dogs to relieve themselves.

The suit seeks no monetary damages, but asks the court to require the airport and Northwest to follow federal disability and transportation laws.

A conference is set for Thursday with U.S. District Judge George Steeh in Detroit.

"The emphasis of this report is, you have an airport that is not a safe airport," said Farmington Hills lawyer Richard Bernstein, who represents the passengers in the suit.

Michael Conway, spokesman for the Wayne County Airport Authority, said that prior to the lawsuit, the authority initiated an Americans with Disabilities Act audit, which is nearly complete.

Conway said the authority's plan was to exchange information cooperatively with all the parties at Thursday's conference with the judge. The airport takes the issue seriously, Conway said. A spokesperson for Delta Air Lines, which merged with Northwest Airlines in October, said the company does not comment on pending litigation.

"Delta Air Lines is dedicated to providing safe and convenient service for all its passengers, and our employees work diligently to comply with all relevant laws protecting the rights of passengers with special needs," the company said in a statement.

Talbot said the problems at Metro Airport can be fixed, "but it's not going to be quick, and it's not going to be cheap." He said he did not have a cost estimate.

But he added that many airports have the same sort of accessibility problems.

"You find this all over the place," he said. He plans to do an assessment of the airport's North Terminal.