Last updated: 02:30 PM ET, Fri January 08 2016

United Fined For Treatment of Passengers With Disabilities

Airlines & Airports | Josh Lew | January 08, 2016

United Fined For Treatment of Passengers With Disabilities

The U.S. Department of Transportation fined United Airlines $2.75 million for breaking rules concerning tarmac delays and ignoring statues governing the services offered to passengers with disabilities. 

In a statement explaining the penalty, the DOT said that passengers who required extra assistance from United did not get it in a number of instances. “A review of these disability-related complaints revealed that United failed to provide passengers with disabilities prompt and adequate assistance with enplaning and deplaning aircraft… [Also] United failed to return passengers’ wheelchairs, other mobility aids, or other assistive devices in a timely manner or in the condition in which the airline received them.” 

Tarmac delays and accessibility issues

The most high-profile incident occurred this past October when a disabled passenger had to crawl out of a United plane when a wheelchair was not made available. United said that the issue was caused by miscommunication among the ground staff. The fine was not due to this single event, however. The Department of Transportation cited legitimate complaints about accessibility issues from United passengers at Houston, Chicago O’Hare, Denver International and Washington Dulles.  

RELATED: Traveling Adults with Disabilities Generate $17.3 Billion in Annual Spending

A portion of the $2.75 million penalty was for not heeding the three-hour limit for tarmac delays. A 2010 law says that passengers have to be given the option to disembark if their plane has been delayed for more than three hours between boarding and take-off. All the recent examples of this kind of delay occurred during bad weather.

Several United planes were stuck at Chicago O’Hare during a storm in the winter of 2013, and another at Houston Hobby because of severe weather in May of 2015. In both cases, the Department of Transportation said that gate mismanagement and scheduling mistakes were responsible for the delays (even though the weather played a role). 

Other airlines have also recently incurred penalties for both tarmac delays and failure to provide adequate service to passengers with disabilities. Southwest, for example, had to pay $1.6 million last year for breaking the 180-minute delay barrier. American Airlines had to part with $1.2 million back in 2013 when the DOT said it failed to provide the minimum amount of wheelchair accessibly at two separate airports.  

Fixing the problem?

The wheelchair issue is a bigger PR headache for United. Although the crawling passenger incident got the most press, the number of complaints involving disabled passengers has been on the rise. The DOT claimed that there was “a significant increase in the number of disability-related complaints that United received from consumers in calendar year 2014.”  

United has promised to further develop an already-existing smartphone app that both passengers and crew members can use to request wheelchairs and other assistance. It is pretty common for airlines to be allowed to use their fines to correct the issues that caused the problem in the first place. Another portion of the $2.75 million penalty will be used by United to improve its automated parking systems, which could help lessen delays during bad weather. In addition, the airline will be credited for more than half-a-million dollars that it paid to settle complaints made by fliers with disabilities in the past.   

RELATED: When Walking Distance is Still Too Far

In a statement following the announcement of the fine, United also pointed to its Accessible Travel Advisory Board, a group of travelers with disabilities who are consulted by the airline about its policies and procedures for disables fliers. 

Ongoing effort for better accessibility 

Complaints from fliers with disabilities have been on the rise over the past few years across the industry. The DOT has responded by issuing some of its steepest fines to airlines that don’t give these passengers the required assistance. Groups like Open Doors, whose director Eric Lipp is a member of United’s Accessible Travel Advisory Board, have been campaigning for greater accessibility for people with disabilities in all industries related to travel and tourism. 

Many people consider this a civil rights issue. Airlines seem to be slowly improving accessibility. Unfortunately, it seems like often it takes steep fines in order to get them to act.   


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