Can the Airlines Survive the New Access Fines?

Andy Kennedy of Access Anything, LLC has written this guest piece at my invitation. Not only an experienced writer, dedicated promoter of inclusive travel and leisure activities, and a friend, Andy has inside experience advising a major US airline on issues of accessibility. She travels to train airline and other transportation industry professionals on their obligations under the law and the finer points of providing quality service to all customers. Andy speaks from experience. Her tenacity, ethical stance, and sense of fairness command my respect.


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The airline industry has been struggling for years to bring their accessibility up to date for travelers with disabilities.  The costs that the airlines incur annually in fixing customers' broken mobility equipment alone are astronomical.  Add that to the costs they incur for annual training on handling customers with disabilities, the costs for upgrading access equipment such as aisle chairs, onboard wheelchairs, and boarding lifts at regional airports, now in addition to the fines they incur for violating access laws, the airlines could go broke just playing catch-up. 
 
Some airlines have looked to their customers for help and have hired disability-advisory boards to help them learn how to best handle these issues.  But hosting these bi-annual meetings adds tens of thousands of dollars per meeting to the list above as well, all of which come out of the company's bottom line.   When the industry was lucrative and the laws were new, this seemed to be a logical piece of customer service spending to me. Now however, I feel the government should lend a helping, not hurting, hand.
 
In short, the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) (similar to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)) is the governing law for the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) and Department of Transportation's (DOT) requirements for equal access. The latest ammendment to the ACAA was in May of 2009- DOT Part 382 (382)- and added a barrage of strict new standards for equal access for all airline passengers, and gave the airlines a short, twelve-month period to comply.  Many of the new regulations even applied to the airports, which the airlines have little to no control over, and the carriers were left to fend for themselves to create their own working agreements to fix the many violations in the terminals they use, but do not own.  To the airlines, it seemed an impossible feat to accomplish, but they all scrambled to complete what needed to be done, and of course many went futher into the red in doing so.
 
The DOT's 382 fines for noncompliance are astronomical. One single violation to the act will incur a $27,500 fine now, and they never incur just one fine per instance.  The latest fine was to Delta Airlines (released February 17, 2011) in the amount of $2,000,000, the largest 382 fine to date.  But Delta has been fined before, in 2003, and due to those fines they became one of the industry's prime leaders in customer service and advancements in technology for travelers with disabilities.  They had one of the first disability advisory boards and raked in high ratings among travelers in this niche.
 
Thankfully, a large percentage of the fine (no matter the amount) is always rolled back into the solutions for the access problems at hand, the fines seem excessive.  Although I travel with someone who uses a wheelchair and whose rights have been regularly violated, the fines still seems excessive. 
 
In the ten years we have traveled together, my husband's wheelchair has been broken four times, his shower chair has been broken twice, his right to stow his wheelchair in the on-board closet or in the backrow seat has been violated more times than I can count, our service animal has been denied boarding, and we have had to smile in the face of some of the worst customer service I have ever seen.
 
In lieu of calling the feds in to slap one of those hefty fines on any of airlines who have caused these injustices (none of which were Delta), we have tried to help both the industry and the consumer negotiate change.  Since our company opened its doors in 2004 we have advocated for the rights of travelers with disabilities, educated our readers on traveling with a disability, and helped the market understand why this is a viable one to honor. Since 2008 we have been a part of the Continental Airlines' Customers with Disabilities Advisory Board, and since 2009 we have helped the Open Doors Organization train the airlines on handling and stowing adaptive and mobility equipment as well as training their Complaints Resolution Official (CROs), which the DOT has required to have at all airports for several years now.
 
While all of this is fulfilling, the mountain is still so much taller than the clouds, the summit seemingly always out of both view and reach.  Fining the airlines will help fix some of the immediate issues, that is until they all go bankrupt from it or from the never-ending gas spikes, whichever comes first.  To me,  there HAS to be a better solution from the DOT, starting with not holding the airlines responsible for how accessible the airports are.
 
Take this comparison:  when the ADA went into effect in 1990, the government stepped in to help the National Parks System (NPS) install equal access at nearly 400 locations across the United States, some of which were so grossly out of compliance the fixes would incur hundreds of thousands of dollars to provide the equal access.  During a decade when the country had a some reserve in its pockets to do so, this daunting task was easily funded. There were a few law suits that helped spur the project, but in general, the system was improved with grants, donations, and federal funding, and the NPS still gets a lot of props for their quick resolution to its many violations to the ADA at the time.
 
Flash forward; it's now twenty years post-ADA.  The country's reserves are nothing but sawdust on the federal bank floors, and (no) thanks to 911, the once-booming airline industry is choking on what little fumes are left at the bottom of each $80 barrel of oil.  Their problems are much bigger than equal access, despite the 55 million Americans with disabilities who desperately require it. Their problems are much bigger than shoddy customer service, which affects each and every traveler, American or foreign, disabled or not.
 
As with our insurance system, this system is desperately flawed beyond repair.  At some point one airline could easily go bankrupt (perhaps for the second time) as a result of these fines.  While the accessibility fixes are for the great benefit of the $13billion industry that makes up the travelers with disabilities market (of which my family will also personally benefit) the DOT is growing fat again on the strict rules they now apply to a deteriorating industry. 
 
I implore you readers to help us think about a better solution.  A solution that still honors the importance of serving all customers equally, but doesn't cause this collapsing industry to fold under the weight of these fines. A solution that is more innovative than punitive, and encourages further innovation.  Because while I do believe that equality is what our country was founded on, and equal access is mandatory, I don't believe that millions of dollars in fines will ever solve the gross lack of customer service that I see prevelent in all industries in this country.  We have to change our attitidues in general, not bleed the airlines dry.
 
 
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