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United Airlines Had 2 Million Reasons to Fix This Wheelchair Problem. They Didn't.

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Bonnie Way and her elderly mother, Anne, recently flew from San Francisco to Edmonton, Canada on United. Unfortunately, they’re not in any big hurry to repeat the experience.

But to be honest, United is not in a hurry, either.

Way purchased the tickets for her 89-year-old mother as a gift so she could visit her only living sibling, who is 92 years old. When she booked the tickets, she let the airline know her mom would need wheelchair assistance. She also spoke up at the gate in San Francisco, where the gate agent assured her a wheelchair would await them in Edmonton.

But when Way and her mother landed in Edmonton, there was no wheelchair in sight. The entire plane had emptied out, and the flight attendant told Way she could find a wheelchair at the top of the jet bridge.

Way’s request for wheelchair assistance, a service that must be provided under the law, was ignored — sort of. We’ll get to that in a second. But the airline’s response to Way’s complaints is telling, and leaves us questioning how seriously United takes its responsibility to passengers with disabilities.

If you don’t have a disability — and I don’t — you might not realize what passengers with limited mobility go through to get from point A to point B. You may have noticed the airlines usually announce that passengers using wheelchairs may pre-board, although these passengers may choose not to do so.

Passengers with disabilities who need wheelchairs are typically also the last to leave the aircraft, where they must wait for the airline’s ground contractors to arrive to provide wheelchair assistance.

In Way’s case, their flight was already an hour late, and they needed to make a tight connection in Edmonton — a slim chance under even the best circumstances. But their hopes of making the connection grew dimmer as the ground crew they requested to help Way’s mother get through the airport simply didn’t show up.

Way and her mother slowly made their way up the jet bridge, rolling their carry-ons behind them, where a parked wheelchair sat unattended. But when Way saw that there was no attendant to push the wheelchair, her mother sat in the wheelchair, and Way, who is elderly herself, began doing the work that United’s ground crew should have been doing.

Way claims that United’s lack of service is in violation of federal disability regulations, a claim United denied in its email response.

Our agent asked if you were okay with pushing the wheelchair with your mother in it and the report indicates you walked away. The agent walked with you while pushing another passenger’s wheelchair.

Once in customs, the agent assisted you with claiming your luggage off the belt and placed it on a cart. Since you missed your connecting flight, she then rebooked you on the next Air Canada flight and pushed the wheelchair with your mother in it over to WestJet, the operating carrier. WestJet then used their wheelchair to transport your mother to the departure gate.

Way sent her complaint to both United and WestJet, the operating carrier on her connecting flight. The response from WestJet confirms that Way and her mother waited 25 minutes for wheelchair assistance before taking matters into their own hands.

In addition to sounding overly defensive, United’s response notably does not address why the agents were not available to assist sooner, and whether a 25-minute wait is unreasonably long.

Here’s a rough analogy: Have you ever been served a meal at a restaurant only to realize there was no fork and knife at the table? So you look around, hoping to see your server, and as your meal gets cold, you become impatient, give up waiting, and grab a place setting from an adjacent table. How is that not indicative of a lack of service on the part of the restaurant? Just because you took matters into your own hands doesn’t mean that the service shouldn’t have been provided in the first place.

Clearly, when passengers with disabilities need to make connections and get on with their lives, the difference between a 10-minute wait and a 30-minute wait for service can make a big difference.

In January 2016, United Airlines was fined more than $2 million for its failure to provide prompt wheelchair service to passengers when enplaning and deplaning. The fine was levied after the Department of Transportation completed an investigation into United’s practices, following a marked uptick in complaints from passengers with disabilities about this very issue.

The DOT’s investigation revealed that “United failed to provide passengers with disabilities prompt and adequate assistance with enplaning and deplaning aircraft and with moving through the terminal at Houston International Airport, Chicago O’Hare International Airport, Denver International Airport, Newark International Airport, and Dulles International Airport.

Prompt and adequate. Doesn’t sound like we are expecting too much, does it?

United suffered a public relations nightmare last year when a man with cerebral palsy waited 45 minutes for wheelchair assistance on the ground in Washington D.C. after a 5-hour flight from San Francisco. Unable to wait any longer, the man crawled 50 feet from his seat to the aircraft door where he was able to climb into his own wheelchair and enter the airport on his own. He couldn’t wait any longer because he desperately needed to use the restroom.

As part of the DOT fine assessed this year, United is supposed to invest $150,000 into improving quality assurance audits of its ground services contractor. Another $500,000 is intended to pay for the development of technology for passengers with disabilities to communicate with its ground services provider and other employees.

In other words, the fine is more like a supervised investment in improving services which ensure equal access to transportation services and compliance with the Air Carrier Access Act.

But is United following through on its commitment to ensuring passengers with disabilities are promptly and adequately assisted upon landing? Way’s experience would seem to suggest that the wait time for wheelchair assistance is still lengthy. And looking at an updated version of the United app installed on my iPhone 6s, I don’t see a section of the app dedicated to requesting wheelchair assistance or other special services. There are, however, integrated United Club, MileagePlus, Uber services and a fantastic Sudoku puzzle section.

Perhaps while you wait for your wheelchair, you can whiz through the 200 Sudoku puzzles loaded to the app?

I’m not trying to make light of this. We clearly need the regulation DOT provides, but if it’s not having any real impact on services, what good is it?

In the meantime, experts say passengers with disabilities can put themselves in a better position by being their own advocate. Knowing your rights and over-communicating with the flight crew can help. When things go wrong, ask to speak with a Complaints Resolution Official (CRO), an employee who must be available to passengers by law.

In Way’s case, both WestJet and United offered to send her $100 Electronic Travel Certificates, an offer Way says is useless because her 89-year-old mother rarely travels, and frankly doesn’t feel up for it after the way things went in Edmonton.

And I don’t blame her. The future travel voucher simply doesn’t heal all wounds. And for a company that made a net income of $7.3 billion in 2015, perhaps a $2 million fine doesn’t begin to send the right message.

Originally published: October 4, 2016
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