Monday, February 21, 2011

DOT Punishes Delta Air Lines, Inc. Millions for "Egregious" Disability Violations

Just last week, the United States Department of Transportation ("DOT") issued a Consent Order that punishes Delta Air Lines $2 million for violating federal rules intended to protect air travelers with disabilities.  The "civil penalty" is the largest penalty ever assessed against an airline by the DOT in a non-safety-related case.

Under the Air Carrier Access Act ("ACAA"), the DOT requires airlines to provide boarding and deplaning assistance to passengers with disabilities through the use of wheelchairs, ramps, mechanical lifts, and service personnel.  Airlines also must respond within 30 days to written complaints about their treatment of disabled passengers and address the issues raised in the complaints.   Finally, airlines must code and record and report their disability-related complaints to the DOT. 

In Delta's case, the Office of Aviation Enforcement and Proceedings reviewed complaints over a seven year period at the Atlanta Hartsfield International and John F. Kennedy airports and found the airline wanting in all three of these areas.

A substantial number of the complaints involved were categorized as "egregious violations," which DOT has said exist if

(1)      the passenger was left unattended on an airplane for over 15 minutes after the other passengers deplaned;
(2)     a non-ambulatory passenger was left unattended in a wheelchair for over 30 minutes in the terminal or on a jet-way;
(3)      the carrier failed to provide requested wheelchair service or other assistance entirely, or a long time delay in providing wheelchair service or other assistance resulted in the passenger missing a flight;
(4)      the passenger was left at the wrong gate resulting in missing his or her flight;
(5)     the passenger had to wait an hour or more for a wheelchair in the terminal; and
(6)     other instances where passengers were subjected to significant delay, harm, or inconvenience because of inadequate assistance.

In order to avoid litigation, Delta agreed to settle with the Enforcement Office through the stipulated cease and desist order, which included a $2 million penalty -- up to $1,250,000 of which may be used to improve the airline's service to passengers with disabilities beyond what is required by law.

Some good should come out of the Consent Order, which noted that "Delta states that it takes its responsibilities under the ACAA and Part 382 very seriously and values its customers with disabilities.  Delta states that it has established industry leading programs for its customers with disabilities and continually strengthens its programs by creating new structures to oversee, manage, and enhance services provided to customers with disabilities. Delta believes that the new structures, together with other disability-program enhancements, demonstrate Delta's total commitment to its long-standing policy of full compliance with all applicable legal requirements."

What should not be lost in all of this is the fact that some court decisions conclude that aggrieved disabled airline passengers themselves have no private remedy in court for any of the above violations under the ACAA.

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