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Las Vegas Sun: Titus calls for transparency from US on complaints from air passengers with disabilities

By Casey Harrison, Las Vegas Sun

U.S. Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., is urging Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg for more transparency in how the department he oversees handles complaints from airline passengers with disabilities amid a rise in such feedback in recent years.

A letter sent to Buttigieg highlighted concerns with how the Transportation Department enforces the Air Carrier Access Act, which unlike the Americans with Disabilities Act is the sole legislation to define rights for disabled Americans traveling by air, Titus’ office told the Sun. The letter was signed by Titus and U.S. Reps. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., and Steve Cohen, D-Tenn.

Among other restrictions, the 1986 carrier act prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in air travel and ensures airlines provide certain accommodations for disabled persons. The law, however, does not expressly provide a right for disabled people to file civil litigation if an airline is in violation of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. That means the only recourse available is for customers to file a complaint with the Transportation Department, the representatives wrote.

“We have heard horrifying stories from our constituents with disabilities about airlines dropping them from wheelchairs while boarding airplanes, damaging or losing their wheelchairs, and other reproaches to their safety, health, and dignity,” the three lawmakers wrote. “Passengers with disabilities continue to face unnecessary and discriminatory barriers that prevent them from participating in society on an equal basis.”

In 2021, the Transportation Department received 1,394 disability-related complaints, representing an increase of 158% from the 541 received in 2020, and a 54% jump from the 905 complaints received in 2019, according to a Government Accounting Office report published in November. And while the department tracks complaints submitted to airlines, the agency does not publicly provide information on how many complaints it resolves, the lawmakers said.

“The lack of transparency is particularly concerning given the rise of disability-related complaints filed with DOT in recent years,” the letter reads. “Our understanding of your Department’s current complaint process with regards to the ACAA is that DOT forwards all disability complaints it receives to the airline accused of a violation, requires the airline to respond to the complaint, reviews the airline’s response, and determines whether to open an investigation by weighing numerous factors, including whether DOT believes an airline is systematically violating civil rights requirements or engaging in particularly egregious conduct.”

Dominic Cirino, treasurer of the Nevada chapter of Paralyzed Veterans of America, applauded Titus’ efforts to bring light to the issue. Cirino, who uses a wheelchair, said his biggest gripe with airlines was his treatment once he’s on a plane.

Many airlines, Cirino said, don’t have airplane aisle wheelchairs, which are specialized wheelchairs built to navigate narrow aisles on commercial airlines. He also said many lavatories on commercial airlines were simply too small to accommodate disabled people.

“Just because a guy can’t walk doesn’t mean he has to use the restroom,” Cirino said. “It can be embarrassing for an individual. It comes down to dignity.”

In addition to a spike in complaints, the letter notes that the Transportation Department has only taken one official enforcement action for noncompliance of the Americans with Disabilities Act since 2019, down from 37 consent orders issued to airlines from 2008 to 2019 for disability-related violations.

The lawmakers in their letter asked the Transportation Department to outline its process for investigating and adjudicating potential consumer protection violations and what criteria is used to determine if the agency will pursue enforcement. The letter also asked how many of the nearly 1,4000 disability-related complaints received in 2021 were dismissed, resulted in a civil penalty against an airline or were resolved in another manner.

“With the (Federal Aviation Administration) reauthorization approaching, one of my top priorities is securing equal access to airports and airplanes for individuals with disabilities and ensuring accountability when their rights are infringed,” Titus said. “I wrote to DOT to urge more transparency in the current complaint process and make sure every passenger is protected.”

Read the full piece here.