Archived: United Airlines: No Fly Zone for People with Disabilities

United Airlines was fined $2 million on Thursday by the U.S. Department of Transportation for its failure to provide proper accommodations for passengers with disabilities.

According to the DOT, the treatment of passengers with disabilities by America’s second-largest airline was investigated following “a significant increase in the number of disability-related complaints.” Among the allegations, the airline neglected to return wheelchairs to passengers in a timely manner or to assist passengers navigating through its airports and, in some cases, wheelchairs returned to passengers were even damaged.

“We expect this to greatly improve our ability to have wheelchairs where they need to be, when they need to be there, so that our customers can get on their way home or to their next destination with ease,” said United senior vice president of airport operations Jon Roitman in a statement.

But the company has a long way to go. Unfortunately, one of the most frustrating aspects of life for people with disabilities is travel, specifically at airports. Travel days consist of fighting through crowds, trying to get a hold of airlines to request someone to transport the chair to the bottom of the plane, transferring from their chair to one of the airport’s chairs, walking down a narrow aisle to squeeze into a seat and spending all flight wondering what part of the chair will break during the flight.

The DOT, in conjunction with disability advocates, aircraft manufacturers and the Association of Flight Attendants, is taking initial steps to curb this issue by negotiating possible implements to the in-flight experience of people with disabilities. From the limited space within the cabin of single-aisle aircraft to the cramped restrooms, it is nearly impossible for passengers with disabilities to access the facilities. Laurel Van Horn of the Open Doors Organization noted the industry’s trend of using single-aisle aircraft for cross-country flights is specifically hindering to this population by posing the question, “How many people want to go without using the restroom for that long”

Also echoing the issues of single-aisle planes is Eric Lipp, the executive director at Open Doors Organization. Lipp, who happens to have a disability, notes that passengers are supposed to be transferred to an aisle-chair and get pushed to the bathroom, but it is difficult to maneuver in single-aisle flights.

Some companies are making improvements already, though. Van Horn alluded to Airbus building A320s with SpaceFlex restrooms that are more accommodating for people with disabilities without compromising seating.

Among the other issues this potential committee will explore are providing closed captioning to in-flight entertainment for the hearing impaired, as well as defining boundaries for bringing service animals onto flights after numerous instances where passengers were “falsely claiming that their pets are service animals.”

Both the airplane manufacturers at Boeing (one of DiversityInc’s Top 25 Noteworthy Companies) and the national flight attendants union, the Association of Flight Attendants, publicly stated they would participate in the endeavors set out by the Department of Transportation. A spokesman for Boeing, Doug Alder, stated, “Boeing often sits on nation committees to offer input on future regulations, we stand ready to implement any airplane design changes, should they become necessary.”

President of the Association of Flight Attendants also released a statement on behalf of the 24,000 members in the union: “In terms of aircraft design, we have worked to promote configurations that provide realistic access to lavatories for disabled passengers. We encourage oversight of the FFA during this process and advocate to the agency, airlines, and aircraft manufacturers to ensure configurations recognize the challenges of a disabled person traveling.”

Richard Parker has been tapped to determine whether the advisory committee should be established. Once that decision is made the Department will have the authority to either set up the committee or to implement the changes on its own.

For a first-hand account on the struggles people with disabilities have to endure while traveling visit

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