Next time something about traveling is aggravating, remember that Denise Richard of Little Elm, Texas, would likely trade places with you.
Her flight to Ohio with her quadriplegic spouse appeared to be more of a challenge for an airline crew who should have been more prepared than to her. While struggling to help him on and off the plane, the attendants dropped him.
But just when things seemed grim, the pilot himself came to the rescue.
Air travel for the disabled is not something we’re used to thinking about in our increasingly mobile society. When I was a kid, flying on a jet to anywhere was a big — and pricey — deal for everyone. I also remember comfortable coach seats, good manners, social interaction, pleasant appearances, and pilots who mingled with passengers while showing off the cockpit to kids — sigh. But I digress.
Today, the Open Doors Organization, an advocacy group for disabled travelers, makes Disability Travel Market forecasts based on U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) statistics and U.S. Census data. Open Doors estimates that, as of 2007, 70 percent of adults with disabilities — more than 22 million people — traveled at least once in a two-year period. Disabled travelers also spent approximately $13.6 billion on travel. DOT’s Freedom to Travel Survey, a major data source, notes that 12 percent of the disabled have difficulty getting the transportation they need, compared to three percent of persons without disabilities.
While numerous criteria, including the Americans with Disabilities Act, mandate and facilitate access on the ground for the disabled, what about the air? The DOT plugged that hole with the Air Carrier Safety Act, requiring airlines to provide boarding assistance — but the act is not specific about the degree of “extensive personal services” within the cabin.
How are the airlines doing? DOT’s latest Air Travel Consumer Report shows 59 disability-related complaints for April 2015 – down from 67 for the same time last year; hopefully, the airlines are past the learning curve. However, in that same month, American Airlines had the second highest number of complaints (eight) of the major domestic airlines.
What went wrong
Reality dictates that air travel will never be easy for the Richards, and to their exemplary credit, they were prepared to suck it up –- more than others may be prepared to do. “We flew on American Airlines to Ohio over Easter,” begins Richard. “My husband is a quadriplegic, which makes travel challenging. It’s always a struggle and rarely goes smoothly. We try to roll with it and not get too upset.”
What followed was a not-so-funny comedy of errors. “On our outbound flight from Dallas/Fort Worth, they failed to give us a seat with an armrest that rises, despite multiple calls to the airline’s special assistance department prior to our travel date,” said Richard. “The employees struggled to get my husband up and over the arm rest, and on arrival the employees couldn’t get my husband out of the seat because he was so tightly wedged in.”