Ellen Brehm, a retired nurse who walks with cane, was stranded last September after flying home from California following the annual trip she's been taking with college friends since 1947.
Her flight, had which departed six hours late, landed at Newark at about 1:20 a.m. The wheelchair service she'd requested was nowhere in sight. Brehm returned to the plane to sit and wait, but a flight attendant told her she must get off so the crew could leave.
She then stood on the jet bridge, balancing on her cane, to wait. About 30 minutes later, another flight attendant exited the plane and asked if she needed help. The woman eventually returned with a wheelchair attendant.
"Here I am, at 2 a.m., 83 years old, all by myself," Brehm says. "There wasn't one person in this whole huge airport. I don't know what I would have done if she hadn't come out."
Airlines are obligated to provide free, prompt wheelchair assistance between curbside and cabin seat to comply with the 21-year-old Air Carrier Access Act, an anti-discrimination law.
But, as more disabled and elderly people take flight in today's congested air system, many are finding that the assistance is difficult to get. In the three years that the government has issued statistics, more than 34,000 disabled fliers have complained about their treatment, and 54% of the incidents have involved wheelchair assistance.
In 2006, the most recent year available, the USA's six large network airlines received 1.07 complaints per 100,000 passengers about inadequate wheelchair assistance. Network airlines — American, United and the like — connect more passengers, and often have a higher complaint rate than low-cost airlines.
Airlines accurately note that the vast number of wheelchair orders from customers come off without a problem. But many disabled fliers and their advocates say the airlines could do a better job.
With pressure on their profits — collectively, they lost $35 billion in the five years ended in 2006 — U.S. airlines typically contract with outside companies for wheelchair service at airports. Critics such as Fernando Torres-Gil, a Los Angeles airports commissioner and polio survivor who uses a wheelchair himself at airports, say the contractors often give substandard service. Torres-Gil cites low wages, high turnover and a lack of training.
"The individuals hired to help people in wheelchairs are some of the most valuable employees," says Torres-Gil. "Yet, (they) are usually the least compensated and most exploited."
According to a survey last year by a workers' advocacy group of 275 Los Angeles International passenger-service workers, the average pay is less than $19,000 a year. Some 60% said they had not been formally trained in how to lift an immobile passenger.
"Service workers are vital to the health and safety of the traveling public, (but) these workers are poorly compensated, receive little training and have few incentives to stay in their jobs," concluded the survey report by Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy.
Los Angeles World Airports, the body that runs four airports, including LAX, is trying to raise standards for wheelchair attendant training, service quality and pay and benefits. The Service Employees International Union sees opportunity in low wages. It's organizing workers at six California airports and may expand the campaign nationally, says Mike Garcia, president of the union's California chapter.