Sunday, October 24, 2010

Disabled traveler (and LA Times editor) questions whether it is fair that she is charged baggage fee

From Catharine Hamm, Los Angeles Times Travel editor:

As a frequent flier, I have long wondered about the legality of charging baggage fees for those of us who are disabled and can't use the overhead bins. I have a bad shoulder, and flight attendants will not assist me. It seems to me that airlines should not charge a fee for bags for people who are disabled. Does the Americans With Disabilities Act apply?

Answer: The Air Carrier Access Act, a cousin to the Americans With Disabilities Act, applies. "[It] was passed really to address specifically these kinds of issues," Lex Frieden, a professor of biomedical informatics and a professor of rehabilitation at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, said in an interview. "It's modeled on the ADA and uses much of the same language." You can find a full copy at

In a follow-up e-mail, Frieden, who has used a wheelchair since an accident in the '60s, wrote, "An air carrier must not require any kind of proof as a condition for the provision of transportation, except in some very limited circumstances."

"Airlines/airports are required to have a customer resolution officer (known as CRO) on duty at all times. Any person who has a conflict with airline personnel should ask to speak to a CRO immediately, and one should be made available shortly."

He recommends that travelers with disabilities carry the phone number for the aviation consumer disability hotline [(800) 778-4838 (voice) or (800) 455-9880 (TTY)] and a copy of Part 382 of the access act ( "These are tools that travelers with disabilities should use to ensure a safe and pleasant journey, without being distracted by conflicts with airline personnel over their right to have assistance that they need."

Alas, that's not the end of the discussion. "A lot of the things in these disabilities acts are ambiguous," says Marjorie Baldwin, an economics professor at the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University and an expert on the ADA. She notes that provisions of the carrier act say airlines should help but added that carriers "are not required to make modifications that would place an undue burden or fundamentally alter their program." She also notes that determining who has a disability can be contentious. Courts, she says, may end up as the referee.

Bonnie Lewkowicz, director of Access Northern California in Berkeley and author of the just launched "A Wheelchair Rider's Guide to the California Coast" (, knows firsthand about the rigors of travel and how rules don't always protect a disabled traveler.

"I guess there's a point at which people have to take responsibility for their own needs," says Lewkowicz, who has used a wheelchair since an accident when she was a teenager. "I'm not being critical. If they know they can't put the suitcase above and they're not willing to ask someone [for help], they have to consider bringing a smaller suitcase and putting it under the seat."

Lewkowicz also suggests talking with the gate agent when checking in and seeking assistance from the agent or from another passenger. "Don't be afraid to ask for help," she says.

Must disabled travelers always take the Blanche DuBois approach? In its update to the rules, the Department of Transportation wrote, "The department does not believe that, under the ACAA, it is appropriate to tell passengers that they must learn to rely on the kindness of strangers."

Which would make anyone who knows the gap between what actually happens and the rules Blanche.