Airlines take notice to U.S. Airways government fine surrounding disabled passengers. Photo Christopher Di Virgilio / PN Online.
The Transportation Department said the airline failed to provide wheelchair assistance to passengers in Philadelphia and Charlotte.
The Transportation Department fined US Airways $1.2 million Monday – one of its largest penalties for a disability case – for failing to provide wheelchair assistance to passengers in Philadelphia and Charlotte.
"All air travelers should be treated fairly when they fly, regardless of any disabilities they may have," said Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.
The department also announced a new rule to require easier stowage of wheelchairs in new planes and the accessibility of airport kiosks and airline websites.
US Airways said it takes its responsibility to provide safe, reliable and convenient travel for passengers seriously and has made "significant improvements" since the complaints cited in the agreement, according to spokesman Todd Lehmacher. The airline is spending more than required to improve its service, he said.
"We are investing $2 million per year in continuous enhancements to our technology, staffing and training," Lehmacher said. "This will build on the success of our recent improvements and ensure that our customers with disabilities have a positive travel experience on our airline."
Airlines are supposed to provide free, prompt wheelchair assistance to passengers with disabilities between gates and making connections.
But transportation officials investigated after receiving 300 complaints from passengers at the two airports during 2011 and 2012, with some passengers being left unattended for long periods and missing connections. Investigators found US Airways' use of electric carts and wheelchairs to carry passengers required frequent transfers and led to long delays.
In some cases, investigators found "egregious" violations such as passengers left unattended on a plane for more than 15 minutes after other passengers got off, being left unattended more than 30 minutes in a terminal or being taken to the wrong gate.
US Airways will pay the government $700,000, according to a seven-page agreement with the government.
The airline can use $280,000 to improve its service by hiring managers to ensure services for passengers with disabilities, $80,000 to create a telephone line to assist passengers, $75,000 to buy tablets to monitor requests, $35,000 to compensate passengers and $30,000 to program computers so boarding passes will designate passengers needing assistance.
In addition Monday, the Transportation Department announced a new rule for the disabled that requires automated airport kiosks be accessible within two years and airline websites within three years. Because travelers typically receive the cheapest fares on web sites rather than by phone, the rule requires airlines to test their accessibility in consultation with groups representing visual, auditory, tactile, and cognitive disabilities.
The rule also requires airlines to choose between stowing wheelchairs in the cabin on new aircraft or strapping them to a row of seats, to ensure that two folding chairs can be transported at a time.
"These new rules build on our past work in ensuring that our air transportation system is accessible for everyone, while balancing both airlines' and passengers' need for flexibility," Foxx said.
Originally published by USA Today. All rights reserved.