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Disabled traveler lodges complaint against airline

By John Geluardi Daily Planet staff
Wednesday July 25, 2001

Air travel for the average person has become increasingly inconvenient with the rising number of reported complaints against airlines for overbooked flights, delayed departures and lost luggage. 

But for Berkeley resident Michai Freeman, who has muscular dystrophy and relies on a wheelchair and ventilator, poor service can quickly turn from inconvenience to a major disruption in her life. 

When Freeman and her  

husband Nicolas Wagele arrived at San Francisco International Airport for their 3 p.m., TWA flight to Milwaukee, she was told she couldn’t board the plane because no qualified personnel was available to inspect her ventilator equipment before take-off. 

Freeman was forced to cancel her journey to a three-day conference at which she was to be certified as a doula, an emotional support counselor for pregnant families. 

“I have been training to become a doula, and this trip was to be the last leg of the certification process,” Freeman said. “Which is of course out of the question now.” 

Freeman said her next opportunity for certification will be in October. 

TWA spokesperson Chris Kelly said airline employees tried to accommodate Freeman by arranging a later flight but she refused. Kelly said if she had boarded the plane without the ventilator being inspected, the airline would of been in violation of Federal Aviation Administration regulations, which requires that ventilators and respirators be inspected because of safety concerns during flight. 

Kelly said there was no record of Freeman giving the airline advance notice about her ventilator use. That notice would of given the airline time to arrange for an engineer to be present and approve the breathing device for air travel, according to Kelly. 

Freeman insists that when she made the reservations three weeks before, she informed TWA, which was recently purchased by American Airlines, that she need assistance boarding and that she would be traveling with her PVO 100 ventilator. She said she was assured there should be no problem. 

“I don’t see how they could say I did not tell them,” Freeman said. “I booked the flight with the longest layover available so I would have time between flights to get organized and was very specific about bringing the ventilator.” 

Sherri Rita, an attorney with the Disability Rights, Education and Defense Fund said she hears a great many complaints about airlines not complying with the Air Carrier Access Act of 1986, which is the FAA version of the American With Disabilities Act. 

“There’s a whole spectrum of problems. For instance, passengers tell airlines they require assistance planing and deplaning and when they arrive at the airport they discover there’s no one available to help them.” Rita said. “There are also many complaints specifically with about wheelchair damage.”  

According to the Department of Transportation’s most recent Air Travel Consumer Report, there were a total of 215 disability complaints against American air carriers from January through March. 

United Airlines has the greatest number of complaints at 24, US Airways has 20. TWA is low on the list with six disability-related complaints. American Airlines, the company that just purchased TWA, is third on the list with 18 complaints. 

Rita said those numbers represent a small percentage of violations of the Air Carrier Access Act.  

“Many people aren’t sure where to complain or don’t think it’s worth the effort,” she said. 

The airlines, she said, have demonstrated an unwillingness to provide quality service to the disabled. 

“There seems the airlines don’t take their obligation seriously,” she said. “The fact that people consistently complain that they call and ask for boarding assistance and then when they arrive there’s no one to help them and no record of the request, is a sign that there’s a total lack of communication.” 

Kelly said TWA personal did what they could to get Freeman to her destination, and her passenger record shows the airlines even bent the rules a bit to get an engineer to the terminal to inspect her ventilator so she could get on the red-eye flight to Milwaukee. 

Kelly said the ADA prevents airlines from asking passengers the nature of their disability when making reservations and that all Freeman’s passenger record shows is that she requested assistance boarding and deplaning, which left the airline unprepared for Freeman’s arrival. 

“She didn’t tell us anything about a wheelchair or about her ventilator,” she said. 

Freeman said she is considering a law suit against TWA. 

“I’m definitely going to pursue this incident in the courts,” she said. “People have been compromising for too long.” 

For more information about the Air Carriers Access Act of 1986 and your rights while traveling go to or call the Department of Transportation at 202-366-4000, hearing Impaired TTD: 202-755-7687.