Airlines tackle wheelchair need

The Minneapolis-St. Paul airport plans to test premium wheelchair service. For a fee, passengers will be able to hire an attendant who will meet them at their gate with a sign bearing their name and a reserved wheelchair, says airport director Steve Wareham. In 2003, Alaska Airlines created a training program at its Seattle hub to improve the way its staff members lift immobile passengers from wheelchairs to aircraft seats — a task that had been a source of injury to some passengers and employees. Today, Alaska transfers an average of 22 passengers a day between wheelchair and cabin seat and has had no recent injuries, says Ray Prentice, Alaska's head of customer care.

And some contractors are introducing better technology to improve tracking of requests, the dispatching of attendants and accountability. At US Airways' Las Vegas hub, the global-positioning technology that contractor Prospect uses allows better staffing for peaks and valleys in demand for service, says John Romantic of US Airways. The system also enables wheelchair attendants to know the name of the passenger they're waiting for so that they don't push the wrong passenger, he says.

Brehm, the retired nurse stranded at Newark, complained to Continental. The airline apologized and gave her a $100 voucher good toward a future flight, she says. The airline's wheelchair assists usually go smoothly, says David Messing, Continental's spokesman. Brehm says she plans to fly the airline again.

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