Airlines tackle wheelchair need

American Eagle spokeswoman Andrea Huguely said the failure of the wheelchair assistant to show up was unfortunate, and said airline employees, not volunteer Lotz, should have assisted the passenger.

She says the airline received over 2 million requests for help last year and that most went well.

Concerns about adequate wheelchair assistance are expanding beyond disability-rights groups. AARP, for instance, is now monitoring how airlines treat people with limited mobility. Brewster Thackeray, an AARP manager, says AARP views wheelchair service as an important quality-of-life issue for baby boomers and their parents.

According to the complaints and interviews with disability-rights advocates, factors other than the service providers combine to cause the system to sometimes come up short:

•Higher demand. Americans on average are growing older, leading to an increase in fliers with disabilities.

By 2030, Open Doors estimates that nearly 24% of the U.S. population will be disabled, and 15% severely disabled, resulting in about 53 million more disabled people than in 1997. The group estimates that around a third of adults with disabilities fly at least once every two years.

It's not just aging that contributes to the increase in travelers with disabilities. Medical technology allows people who have endured severe trauma from war, vehicle crashes and the like to travel with relative ease, says Kate Hunter-Zaworski, director of the National Center for Accessible Transportation at Oregon State University.

"We are facilitating living a fuller life, and air travel is essential to a full life," she says.

At JetBlue, the growth in passengers who request wheelchair assistance has outpaced overall passenger growth consistently since 2004. Last year, about 262,000 JetBlue passengers, or 1.2%, requested such assistance when making their reservations.

•Late-arriving flights. Flight delays make it harder to coordinate wheelchair assistants, reduce the amount of time disabled people have to board and exit flights, and reduce connection times. Last year, just 73.4% of flights arrived on time, the second-worst annual rate since the government began tracking.

•Passenger behavior. Travelers who request wheelchair service in advance don't always receive it immediately when getting off a plane because another passenger who didn't request help in advance may have reached the wheelchair first. Attendants are typically told to help anyone who sits in their chair. Some travelers also cheat, particularly at large international airports, where able-bodied people sometimes get wheelchairs to cut into long lines at Customs, say airport and airline officials.

Airlines have an incentive to improve wheelchair assistance, says Lipp, of Open Doors, the Chicago non-profit. Passengers with disabilities generate nearly $3 billion a year for airlines, and the market's potential grows each day, he says.

Making some improvements

Some in the travel industry are responding to the need for better wheelchair service. Seeing a rise in elderly travelers and a reduction in airline staffing, the Fort Lauderdale airport now deploys its own staff to pitch in at times when the airlines' staff or contractors can't keep up, says Greg Meyer, the airport's spokesman.

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