Sunday, September 4, 2011

Delta said its four representatives were wrong for charging a blind customer extra for booking tickets over the phone

From the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Pictured is Susan Barton, who is blind and has MS and lupus, and who can't make airline reservations on the Internet. Also pictured is Vincent Barton, who is nearing 80 and not comfortable making reservations online. Delta wants to charge them $25 per ticket (total $50) to make reservations over the phone. No exceptions, no waivers for disabilities.

Susan Barton is legally blind and uses a wheelchair, a result of her 40-year battle with multiple sclerosis. But she doesn't let her disability hamper her love of traveling with her husband.

So her dander rose when she tried to book two tickets on Delta Air Lines for a long weekend in Chicago this past June and the airline told her she'd have to pay an extra $50 -- $25 per person -- to buy the tickets over the phone instead of online.

After Barton explained that she was blind and couldn't use the website, the call center representative insisted that the fee couldn't be waived. That person's supervisor said the same thing. So did the two people she called at the airline's Atlanta headquarters.

"For years I've been arranging our travel and doing it by phone," said Barton, 64, of Minneapolis, who retired as director of human resources for the Prudential Insurance Co. "Northwest charged me $5 extra for arranging those tickets by phone. [Delta was] going to charge me $25 extra for each ticket. That just seemed, quite frankly, outrageous to me."

"I asked, isn't there an exception for someone who's handicapped? Their response was, isn't there a family member or friend who could do it for you?"

Barton said her husband, Vincent, a retired Prudential executive, will be 80 later this month and isn't adept at navigating the airline's website.

When Whistleblower called Delta's corporate communications office in Atlanta, spokeswoman Ashley Black said the four people Susan Barton spoke with were wrong.

"Our policy is that any customer with disabilities that cannot use, that fee will be waived," Black said.

Black later sent an e-mail saying, "While it's unfortunate this incident occurred, we are using this opportunity to improve our processes. We're working with our agents to ensure that they are aware of and in compliance with this policy."

Chris Danielsen, director of public relations for the National Federation of the Blind, said Delta's refusal to waive the fee violated federal law. Under the Air Carrier Access Act, an airline must waive call-center fees for a blind person if they cannot use the airline's website. An airline also must charge a blind person the same fare that is available on the Internet, he said.

Delta is hardly alone among airlines for refusing to waive fees for a blind passenger. Jonathan Lazar, a professor of computer science at Towson University in Maryland, led a study of airlines' compliance with the Air Carrier Access Act. The study, which did not include Delta, found four U.S. airlines whose websites could not be read with screen readers, and thus were not accessible to the blind.

When researchers posed as blind customers, three of the four airlines refused to waive the call-center fee in anywhere from two to six of the calls.

Last week, a quick survey by Whistleblower found that American Airlines, United Airlines and U.S. Airways all charge a $25 per ticket fee to make reservations by phone, but all said that fee is waived for customers with disabilities. Southwest Airlines said it does not charge a fee to make phone reservations.

Barton's case is just one in the string of incidents in which Delta was faulted in its treatment of passengers with disabilities.

Earlier this year, Whistleblower described how Carrie Salberg, who has muscular dystrophy and uses a ventilator to breathe, was kicked off a Delta flight from New Orleans to the Twin Cities after the airline told her she couldn't bring her medical equipment on board. A month earlier, Delta had told her that her equipment met the company's requirements.

In February, Delta was fined $2 million by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) after the agency reviewed 5,000 complaints filed by and on behalf of disabled passengers. The fine was the largest the DOT has ever assessed against an airline in a case not involving safety violations.

Susan Barton said she and her husband travel four or five times a year, spending a few weeks in Palm Desert, Calif., Sanibel, Fla., or Hilton Head, S.C. Most of their flights are on Delta, and, once they get to the airport, the airline has been "really very accommodating," she said.