The not-so-friendly skies Delta socked with penalty

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has assessed a civil penalty of $2 million against Delta Air Lines for violating rules protecting air travelers with disabilities. The penalty was announced February 17. The civil penalty is the largest penalty ever assessed against an airline by the Department of Transportation in a non-safety-related case.

“Ensuring that passengers with disabilities receive fair treatment when they fly is a priority for the Department of Transportation,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “We take our aviation disability rules seriously and will continue to enforce them vigorously.”

The DOT requires airlines to provide assistance to passengers with disabilities while boarding and deplaning aircraft, including the use of wheelchairs, ramps, mechanical lifts and service personnel where needed. Carriers also must respond within 30 days to written complaints about their treatment of disabled passengers, and specifically address the issues raised in the complaints. In addition, airlines must properly code and record their disability-related complaints in connection with required reporting to the department.

An investigation by the DOT’s Aviation Enforcement Office of disability complaints filed with Delta and DOT revealed many violations of the requirement to provide assistance getting on and off the airplane. The carrier’s complaint files also showed that it frequently did not provide an adequate written response to disability complaints from passengers. The Aviation Enforcement Office further found that Delta also failed to properly report each disability complaint in reports filed with the department.

Of the $2 million penalty, $750,000 must be paid by the carrier and up to $1,250,000 may be used to improve its service to passengers with disabilities beyond what is required by law. Delta may target up to $834,000 of the civil penalty amount toward the development and implementation of an automated wheelchair tracking system at the carrier’s major hub airports. Up to $236,000 may be used toward developing and distributing customer service surveys for passengers with disabilities to rate Delta’s accommodation services and provide specific feedback to the carrier on how it can improve. In addition, up to $150,000 may be used to expand audits of the carrier’s compliance with Air Carrier Access Act rules and for consultation to help improve the quality of Delta’s services to passengers with disabilities at airports and up to $30,000 to enhance its website to improve air travel accessibility. The actual costs of these improvements by Delta will be significantly greater than the credited amounts.

The penalty is not a surprise to some travelers on Delta and its smaller affiliated airlines, including White Bear Lake resident Carrie Salberg, whose problems with Delta partner Compass Airlines were described in the February issue of Access Press. Salberg, who is an experienced traveler, has muscular dystrophy. In January she was asked to get off of a plane because the pilot had concerns about her ventilator’s 12-volt dry cell battery. Even though Salberg was told and had documentation stating that her ventilator batteries were safe for the flight, the pilot’s decision was that she couldn’t be on the flight. Although Salberg’s complaint wasn’t part of the DOT’s investigation, it is one of many complaints against Delta.

“I am happy that the Department of Transportation recognizes the seriousness of the violations,” said Salberg. Though, given her experience with Delta doing the bare minimum to “get rid” of the problem, and the fact that they received a similar (though not quite as high) fine in 2003, she didn’t know how much confidence she had in Delta doing the right thing. Only time will tell whether Delta takes the violations as seriously as the DOT, she said.

As for Salberg’s specific complaint, getting results took time. She had no contact with Delta until after the airline was contacted by the Star Tribune newspaper. (The Star Tribune also published an article detailing Salberg’s travel problems.)

She was told by a Delta representative that the flight crew was working off of manuals that were outdated, possibly as old as eight or nine years. The representative said that all manuals would be updated and staff would get more training.

Salberg was offered only $200 in vouchers for each person in her traveling group. “I told the Delta rep I was not happy with that—it wasn’t enough to even cover the cost of the flight,” Salberg said. She was later offered $300 vouchers for each person and a full refund. But that didn’t make up for what they went through.

More problems followed. Almost two weeks went by before her account was given credit for the refund, minus about $140. What was considered a “full” refund didn’t include the taxes and fees for each ticket. Salberg contacted the Star Tribune reporter, who in turn contacted Delta again. The refund showed up in Salberg’s account several days later. But baggage fees incurred on the trip weren’t refunded.

“It was clear that Delta was doing as little as possible to make the situation go away,” she said. “What they promised (the full refund) was just a drop in the bucket for them – and yet, I had to fight to get what was promised. I am disappointed with how they handled it. I did finally get a written letter of apology and another explanation by email, but discovered after the fact that the vouchers we received expire (and with a limited income, sometimes it takes longer than a year to save up for a trip).”

The DOT consent order is available on the Internet at www.regulations.gov; docket DOT-OST-2011-0003.

This article includes information from the United States Department of Transportation and Access Press staff.

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