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Travelers must make special needs known

The airlines and Amtrak are ready to help passengers with disabilities.

An 81-year-old traveler railed in a letter to airlines about not being able to reserve a ride on one of those electric carts that airlines sometimes use to carry passengers to and from gates at some airports. He admitted that he was offered wheelchair service, but that's not what he wanted. He insisted on a cart. Since one wasn't available, he "hobbled" to the gate, using his cane.

So what's the deal? Who rides the carts, who gets the wheelchairs? And for that matter, how does a disabled air traveler or Amtrak passenger get help?

For starters, the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 and the Air Carrier Access Act mandate that people with impairments have the same opportunity to travel as anyone else. And that includes travelers who require wheelchairs, those who might be semi-ambulatory, and people with hearing and vision impairments.

Under the Air Carrier Access Act, airlines are required to provide disabled passengers with departing, arriving and connecting assistance, including personnel and equipment.

Disabled people should give their carriers a heads-up when they make their reservations, requesting wheelchair service or other assistance. As for the electric carts, not all airports have them, and carriers do not take reservations for them.

At Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, for example, hometown United Airlines, with its huge Terminal 1, maintains 110 wheelchairs and recently purchased 10 additional electric carts at $11,500 apiece to bring its total to 18. "During the summer season, we help from 1,100 to 1,300 people a day," said Lyn Dade, United's supervisor of support services at O'Hare.

"When disabled persons make their flight reservations, they should request wheelchair service if they're going to need it," Dade said. When such outbound passengers "arrive at the airport, they then should ask a skycap to contact the Special Service center to have someone pick them up, because we have no way of knowing who's going to show up and when. That's why they need to ask a skycap."

When those passengers arrive at their destination, they will be met by someone with a wheelchair or electric cart.

United has information for disabled passengers under Special Needs at its Web site, http://www.ual.com.

"If you're disabled, tell the curbside skycap or someone at the ticket counter that you need a wheelchair," echoed Mary Frances Fagan, an American Airlines spokeswoman in Chicago.

"You can have your wheelchair request put in your record when you make the reservation, but you need to tell the skycap when you arrive at the airport."

As for electric carts, not all airports have them because of their configuration, Fagan said. "Sometimes people need a cart instead of a wheelchair. You can ask for a cart when you're walking down a concourse and you just can't make it. Ask for help at a gate."

Information on American's services to disabled travelers can be found at http://www.aa.com under Programs and Services.

Delta Air Lines cares for its disabled passengers the same way, offering wheelchairs, aisle or boarding chairs, onboard wheelchairs and electric carts at some major airports. Disabled passengers can find extensive information about the carrier's services at http://www.delta.com.

Amtrak, too, offers a range of options for disabled passengers: discounted tickets, boarding and detraining help, accessible coaches and meals. Again, passengers need to make their needs known when they make reservations. Details can be found on the Internet at http:// www.amtrak.com/trip/special.html or by calling (800) 872-7245.

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