Airlines tackle wheelchair need

Two large contractors, Prospect and Air Serv, declined to be interviewed about their operations. Based in Des Plaines, Ill., Prospect has more than 4,000 employees in 14 cities, including San Francisco, Tampa and Dallas-Fort Worth, according to its website. Air Serv, based in Atlanta, has operations in Los Angeles, Boston and Atlanta.

The main obstacle to better service is money, says Eric Lipp of Open Doors Organization, a Chicago-based non-profit that tracks the disability consumer market for the travel industry. Open Doors three years ago started organizing conferences for contractors and airlines to improve communication and service. He says that airlines pressure contractors to deliver the work cheaply.

"Ninety percent of the wheelchair problems exist because there's no money in it," Lipp says. "I'm not 100% convinced that airline executives are really willing to pay for this service."

The USA's largest airlines, including No. 1 American and No. 2 United, declined requests for interviews about their wheelchair-assistance programs.

Stranded for 24 hours

During the last Christmas holiday rush, Sile Jaboni, a 70-year-old Albanian woman who spoke no English, was left stranded by her wheelchair attendants for 24 hours at Chicago O'Hare. On Dec. 18, Jaboni flew United from Orlando to O'Hare, where she was scheduled to catch a flight back to Europe, says Steve Crandall, the Jacksonville travel agent who booked her travel.

Her first wheelchair attendant left her at the wrong gate. Later, another attendant pushed her to the correct gate, but after her flight had already departed.

Eventually, an Air Jamaica employee stopped to see if Jaboni needed help. She handed him a piece of paper with her nephew's phone number. The nephew paid for his aunt to return to Orlando, Crandall says. United eventually agreed to pay Jaboni's fare back to Albania, but only after Crandall contacted local media, he says.

Robin Urbanski, a United spokeswoman, called the incident "an unfortunate oversight." She and Adam Taylor, a vice president of Air Serv, the service provider, each said improvements are in the works.

On several Delta flights, wheelchair user Mary Verdi-Fletcher, founder of the Cleveland-based Dancing Wheels dance troupe, says people who help transfer her from wheelchair to cabin seat usually don't know how to do it properly. She's grown accustomed to talking them through the process.

"Most of the time they cannot figure out the seat belts or the braking system on the (wheelchair), so we are tossed and jarred about and cannot really catch ourselves if they stumble," Fletcher says. Delta declined comment.

Roger Lotz, a Travelers Aid volunteer at Reagan Washington National, says he has seen the wheelchair-request system fail at times, especially during peak holiday periods. Airline gate agents are overloaded, and, as a result, the airlines and contractors don't coordinate wheelchair usage, he says.

Lotz, a former flight attendant, says on Dec. 23 he borrowed a wheelchair from a passenger to help an American Eagle passenger off her plane when the assistant didn't arrive after 40 minutes.

Lotz wheeled the woman off the plane, but her exit wasn't entirely smooth. "She was hissed at and even booed" by the passengers waiting to board the flight as she was wheeled off the plane, he says.

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