With increasing security at airports around the world, flying has grown more stressful for all of us. But for people with disabilities, flying can be particularly daunting. Imagine if you were the Atlanta businesswoman who was asked to remove her prosthetic arm for further examination. Or if you were asked to remove your prosthetic breast, as a cancer survivor was in a North Carolina airport.
Take the case of Carrie Salberg, who has muscular dystrophy and must travel with a ventilator. She had boarded her flight home from a vacation in New Orleans when flight attendants ordered her off the plane with no explanation. Ms. Salberg had received approval to fly with the ventilator a month earlier and had flown without incident to New Orleans. She was finally allowed to board a plane five hours later, but the delay meant she couldn't drink anything for hours because she is not able to use public bathrooms.
The US Department of Transportation (DOT) received 17,068 disability-related complaints against airline carriers in 2009 - an increase of more than 20 percent over 2008. Meanwhile, the number of passengers decreased, as did the overall consumer complaints received by the DOT.
There have also been numerous instances in which airlines lost assistive devices in their care, like wheelchairs or oxygen tanks. For example, Juan Cobeñas, a disability advocate, tried to go from Argentina to an international disability rights conference in Colombia last December, but he never got to the meeting because the airline lost part of his wheelchair. It's not the same as losing a suitcase, inconvenient as that might be. People with disabilities depend on these devices for basic mobility, to be able to care for themselves, even for survival.
The US Air Carrier Access Act, which applies to both domestic airlines and foreign airlines that fly to and from the US, says that airlines cannot deny people with disabilities from traveling because of their disability. To address mistreatment and discrimination against people with disabilities, the DOT investigates complaints, and can fine the offending airline.
Just last week, the DOT fined Delta $2 million - the largest fine ever assessed - after finding that Delta committed "egregious violations" of the law requiring air carriers to provide passengers with disabilities assistance getting on and off a plane. To its credit, Delta responded to the fine quickly, apologizing to its customers and promising a thorough review and revamp of the training and information it provides. Continental Airlines was fined $100,000 last year for improper record-keeping related to disability complaints.
No one questions that security is important, and certainly airline passengers without disabilities also suffer inconveniences and indignities travelling these days. But the safety and dignity of people with disabilities should not be sacrificed in the name of convenience at the security line, or because of negligence and indifference.
In an increasingly globalized world, air travel is more and more integral to our lives and our livelihoods. People with disabilities have the right to fly and receive equal treatment by airline staff. To make this happen, the law has to be strictly and effectively enforced, and airline staff should get comprehensive training. Airlines should look to people with disabilities themselves for advice and information when developing training and setting up disability-related policies and procedures. While airlines are cutting costs all around to stay competitive in a tough economic market, saving money at the expense of obeying the law and respecting the rights and dignity of people with disabilities is not an acceptable choice.
In the United States, passengers who "experience disability-related air travel service problems" should call the Department of Transportation hotline at 1-800-778-4838 (voice) or 1-800-455-9880 (TTY). See http://airconsumer.dot.gov/hotline.htm for more information.
Shantha Rau Barriga is the disability rights researcher and advocate for Human Rights Watch.