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Federal crackdowns improving travel for disabled

Under the best of circumstances, air travel can be arduous, stressful and even frightening for the estimated 54-million Americans with disabilities.

Jeff Rosen, general counsel and director of policy for the National Council on Disability, never naps at airports. Instead he stays alert for clues that his flight may have been canceled. "I watch for masses of people . . . vacating a space," he said. "Then I make inquiries."

That's because Rosen, who is hearing impaired, can't hear the announcements on the public address system.

As a wheelchair user, Lex Frieden, the council's chairman, shuns airlines and airports that don't use jetways. That's because the usual alternative is entrusting his body to strangers who will carry him up steep stairs onto the plane. "It can be done safely," he said of the trip up the steps, but there are always risks.

Travelers with disabilities are gaining powerful new allies and getting better treatment in the air. There's also reason to hope for continued improvement. Among the developments:

+ In a major crackdown, the Department of Transportation last year issued record fines, nearly $5.8-million against 11 airlines, for violations of the Air Carrier Access Act, the 1986 law that guarantees equal treatment for fliers with disabilities. Much of that money is being used to improve services for these customers.

+ The penalty for violating the Air Carrier Access Act is becoming steeper. In 2000 it increased from $1,100 to $10,000; last month it went to $25,000. The fine is assessed per incident.

+ The DOT, in late 2002, upgraded its toll-free phones for assisting air travelers with disability complaints. The phones, toll-free 1-800-778-4838 (voice) and 1-800-455-9880 (TTY), are staffed 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily.

+ Fewer people are complaining to federal regulators about disability-related problems in the air. During the first nine months of 2003, the DOT logged 263 such complaints, compared with 365 for the same period in 2002. Complaints dropped even though the airlines carried more passengers.

+ Starting this year, airlines must file an annual report with the DOT on complaints received about their treatment of customers with disabilities. Until now, the DOT had reported only complaints made directly to the agency, a figure thought to be lower than those processed by the airlines themselves.

There is disagreement about why the DOT has recently logged fewer complaints.

Frieden, of the National Council on Disability, an independent agency appointed by the president, credits the carriers for the decrease.

"Given the challenges that they face . . . they have done a remarkable job of improving overall service to people with disabilities," he said, referring to the airlines' financial problems and new security rules after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Frieden's colleague, Rosen, is skeptical. He says people feel "overwhelmed and frustrated" by the federal bureaucracy, so they don't file complaints.

He said he had yet to hear from the DOT on his complaint alleging rude treatment by an airline reservationist in March.

Both men agree, though, about the reason for the record fines last year: The DOT has increased enforcement radically.

In a blistering report to Congress in 1999, the National Council on Disability complained that the DOT had "less than one full-time equivalent" employee assigned to enforce the Air Carrier Access Act. In the past 18 months, the department has hired 10 analysts and 10 attorneys for this project, said Paul Takemoto, a DOT spokesman.

In 2003, it fined Air Tran, America West, American, Delta, Frontier, JetBlue, Ryan International, Southwest, TWA (based on incidents before it was bought by American in 2001), United and US Airways.

Violations alleged in these consent orders date to 1999. They typically involved delays in assisting disabled passengers on or off the plane, failing to provide storage space in the passenger cabin for collapsible wheelchairs or neglecting to provide a written response to complaints.

Some United passengers, for instance, said they experienced "prolonged delays in obtaining wheelchairs" or were stranded on board for "extended periods," according to the DOT, which fined the airline more than $1-million.

United will use most of the fine to hire specialized supervisors and equip staffers with cell phones to better coordinate service, a spokesman said.

Southwest, fined $500,000 in August, is retrofitting its passenger cabins with storage compartments for collapsible wheelchairs, said Whitney Eichinger, a spokeswoman.

One of the more egregious alleged violations involved Ryan International, a charter carrier based in Wichita, Kan. In 2000, two passengers "were strapped to a wooden office chair with clothing belts and carried off the plane" in Chicopee, Mass., because the airline lacked the proper deplaning equipment, according to the DOT.

Ryan is using most of its $400,000 fine to train vendors and flight crews "to stop something like this from ever happening again," said David Ray, its vice president of flight operations.