United had two million reasons to fix this wheelchair problem

Bonnie Way and her elderly mother, Anne, recently flew from San Francisco to Edmonton, Canada on United. Unfortunately, they’re not in any big hurry to repeat the experience.

But, to be honest, United is not in a hurry, either.

Way purchased the tickets for her 89-year-old mother as a gift so she could visit her only living sibling, who is 92 years old. When she booked the tickets, she let the airline know her mom would need wheelchair assistance. She also spoke up at the gate in San Francisco, where the gate agent assured her a wheelchair would await them in Edmonton.

But when Way and her mother landed in Edmonton, there was no wheelchair in sight. The entire plane had emptied out, and the flight attendant told Way she could find a wheelchair at the top of the jet bridge.

Way’s request for wheelchair assistance, a service that must be provided under the law, was ignored — sort of. We’ll get to that in a second. But the airline’s response to Way’s complaints is telling, and leaves us questioning how seriously United takes its responsibility to passengers with disabilities.

Because if you don’t have a disability — and I don’t — you might not realize what passengers with limited mobility go through to get from point A to point B. You may have noticed the airlines usually announce that passengers using wheelchairs may pre-board, although these passengers may choose not to.

Passengers with disabilities who depend on wheelchairs are typically also the last to leave the aircraft, where they must wait for the airline’s ground contractors to arrive to provide wheelchair assistance.

In Way’s case, their flight was already an hour late, and they needed to make a tight connection in Edmonton — a slim chance under even the best circumstances. But their hopes of making the connection grew dimmer as the ground crew they requested to help Way’s mother get through the airport simply didn’t show up.

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Way and her mother slowly made their way up the jet bridge, rolling their carry-ons behind them, where a parked wheelchair sat unattended. But when Way saw that there was no attendant to push the wheelchair, her mother sat in the wheelchair, and Way, who is elderly herself, began doing the work that United’s ground crew should have been doing.

Way claims that United’s lack of service is in violation of federal disability regulations, a claim United denied in its email response.

Our agent asked if you were okay with pushing the wheelchair with your mother in it and the report indicates you walked away. The agent walked with you while pushing another passenger’s wheelchair.

Once in customs, the agent assisted you with claiming your luggage off the belt and placed it on a cart. Since you missed your connecting flight, she then rebooked you on the next Air Canada flight and pushed the wheelchair with your mother in it over to WestJet, the operating carrier. WestJet then used their wheelchair to transport your mother to the departure gate.

Way sent her complaint to both United and WestJet, the operating carrier on her connecting flight. The response from WestJet confirms that Way and her mother waited 25 minutes for wheelchair assistance before taking matters into their own hands.

In addition to sounding overly defensive, United’s response notably does not address why the agents were not available to assist sooner, and whether a 25-minute wait is unreasonably long.

Here’s a rough analogy from an able-bodied writer: Have you ever been served a meal at a restaurant only to realize there was no fork and knife at the table? So you look around, hoping to see your server, and as your meal gets cold, you become impatient, give up waiting, and grab a place setting from an adjacent table? How is that not indicative of a lack of service on the part of the restaurant? Just because you took matters into your own hands doesn’t mean that the service shouldn’t have been provided in the first place.

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Clearly, when passengers with disabilities need to make connections and get on with their lives, the difference between a ten minute wait and a thirty minute wait for service can make a big difference.

In January 2016, United Airlines was fined more than $2 million for its failure to provide prompt wheelchair service to passengers when enplaning and deplaning. The fine was levied after the Department of Transportation completed an investigation into United’s practices, following a marked uptick in complaints from passengers with disabilities about this very issue.

The DOT release states that its investigation revealed that “United failed to provide passengers with disabilities prompt and adequate assistance with enplaning and deplaning aircraft and with moving through the terminal at Houston International [sic] Airport, Chicago O’Hare International Airport, Denver International Airport, Newark International Airport, and Dulles International Airport.

Prompt and adequate. Doesn’t sound like we are expecting too much, does it?

United suffered a public relations nightmare last year when a man with cerebral palsy waited 45 minutes for wheelchair assistance on the ground in Washington D.C. after a 5-hour flight from San Francisco. Unable to wait any longer, the man crawled 50 feet from his seat to the aircraft door where he was able to climb into his own wheelchair and enter the airport on his own. The man couldn’t wait any longer because he desperately needed to use the restroom.

As part of the DOT fine assessed this year, United is supposed to invest $150,000 into improving quality assurance audits of its ground services contractor. Another $500,000 is intended to pay for the development of technology for passengers with disabilities to communicate with its ground services provider and other employees.

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In other words, the fine is more like a supervised investment in improving services which ensure equal access to transportation services and compliance with the Air Carrier Access Act.

But is United following through on its commitment to ensuring passengers with disabilities are promptly and adequately assisted upon landing? Way’s experience would seem to suggest that the wait time for wheelchair assistance is still lengthy. And looking at an updated version of the United app installed on my iPhone 6s, I don’t see a section of the app dedicated to requesting wheelchair assistance or other special services. There are, however, integrated United Club, MileagePlus, Uber services and a fantastic Sudoku puzzle section.

Perhaps while you wait for your wheelchair, you can whiz through the 200 Sudoku puzzles loaded to the app?

I’m not trying to make light of this. We clearly need the regulation that DOT provides, but if it’s not having any real impact on services, what good is it?

In the meantime, experts say passengers with disabilities can put themselves in a better position by being their own advocate. Knowing your rights and over-communicating with the flight crew can help. When things go wrong, ask to speak with a Complaints Resolution Official (CRO), an employee who must be available to passengers by law.

In Way’s case, both WestJet and United offered to send her $100 Electronic Travel Certificates, an offer Way says is useless because her 89-year-old mother rarely travels, and frankly doesn’t feel up for it after the way things went in Edmonton.

And I don’t blame her. The future travel voucher simply doesn’t heal all wounds. And for a company that made a net income of $7.3 billion in 2015, perhaps a $2 million fine doesn’t begin to send the right message.

Should United offer Way and her mother more than just $100 future travel vouchers?

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Jessica Monsell

A writer and natural advocate, Jessica joined our consumer advocacy effort following a decade of work on behalf of air crash victims at one of the nation’s largest plaintiffs’ law firms. She has lived in Europe and Asia, but now calls Charleston, S.C. home.

  • HeyYouKidsGetOffMyLawn

    All part of the larger pathology that all airlines have – that creates issues for anyone who doesn’t fit the easily shoehorned-in-steerage profile they want for maximum profit.

  • fs2013

    This was my only experience with wheelchair service at United. I was injured in the Philadelphia airport on my way home. Long story, but after a trip to the ER, I was back later that day on crutches with one broken ankle and one sprained one. I was a mess, traveling cross country by myself.

    I was rerouted by UA personnel on a United Express flight to IAD, then on to home on the West coast. Upon arrival at the gate at Dulles, they brought out a wheelchair and a lift (small plane, stair exit). An elderly woman basically stole my wheelchair. My name was announced by the wheelchair assistant, but another passenger took it, leaving me at the aircraft door. According to the flight crew, I was the only passenger who requested wheelchair service on that flight. So, we all waited another ten minutes or so for another wheelchair to be brought out.

    So, what I’m suggesting is that this particular case may have been like mine. I would never assume that the airline was to blame for the lack of wheelchair service at the gate. People are selfish and there may have been a chair and assistant there and someone else claimed it.

  • Technically United was probably not required to offer assistance in this case, since the Americans with Disability Act does not apply overseas. But why couldn’t any of the crew be bothered, after all the ‘buh-byes’ had been said to the able-bodied, to bring up a wheelchair that was sitting right there at the other end of the jet bridge?

  • Tricia K

    I have needed wheelchair assistance many times in the past few years after my knee replacement got infected and had to be removed (I had no knee for three months). We were going to a wedding in St. Louis that I refused to miss, knee or no knee. It was a holiday weekend and it’s as if the airlines didn’t realize people needed wheelchair assistance on a holiday, even though we requested it ahead of time. We checked in for our flight home and sat and waited for the wheelchair. And waited and waited. They sent one guy for four of us and he handled two wheelchairs at a time, prioritizing by flights. We got to the gate with just enough time for me to use the bathroom prior to boarding. When we landed at MSP, we waited on the plane for at least 20-25 minutes after every other passenger left the plane and the flight attendants called yet again for a wheelchair. Fortunately we didn’t have a connecting flight but I was exhausted and not in the mood. The flight attendants were just as anxious because they weren’t allowed to leave the plane until the two or three of us waiting for wheelchairs were off the plane. I did call Delta about my experience and got a $25 credit. I wish I could tell you that was my only experience waiting for a wheelchair but it isn’t. I don’t think any of the airlines do well with this issue. My mother in law is legally blind and we have noted that directly with the airline and they did not offer her the help she needed. She has now stopped flying at all but one of us accompanied her the last few times she flew. Requesting a wheelchair via the Delta app takes persistence. I don’t always need it, depending upon the airport, but no one should have to wait so long they miss their connecting flight.

  • cscasi

    More probable is that one would have to do more work and if he/she brought the wheelchair down then they would probably feel obligated to take the passenger back up the jet bridge. Hey, it’s not my job.

  • JewelEyed

    They really ought to verify that the person they’re picking up is the person it was requested for though. Check the ticket or something.

  • Some employee could have created a ton of good publicity just by volunteering to get the chair and wheel her on to her connection point. That’s exactly what happened this spring when my mom came home from vacation with a broken leg.

    But that was on Southwest.

  • Rebecca

    There are so many parts to equations like these. A big part of the problem, in my view, is that this is one of those cases where the people that really need something get screwed because other people have taken advantage one too many times. I’m not saying that’s the case with the OP, by any means, just pointing out why it is the way it is.

    If you’ve never read about it, just Google about extortion ADA lawsuits. There are literally ADA lawsuit attorneys that hire folks with disabilities to go to mostly small businesses and try to find minor problems, say a paper towel holder too high off the ground or one of the aisles being 6 inches too narrow. They then send demand letters. They’ve shut down and bankrupted several small businesses (because they can and will litigate these cases). There are actually both attorneys and their professional lawsuit clients that have been legally banned from ADA lawsuits in court systems, mostly in CA.

    Then, you get those people that are just jerks. I have an elderly family member that has a narcissistic personality (and I say that meaning she’s been institutionalized and professionally diagnosed, not my layperson opinion). It has only gotten worse with age. We had a regular customer at the store I worked at for many years that just martyred herself to her son in a wheelchair. She was constantly complaining, everything was wrong, just being near her made you cringe.

    So, employees get used to the bs and nonsense that happens day in, day out. And those few people that really need it, as opposed to the many that in all likelihood really probably don’t AND the people that do that are not so nice people, and you end up screwing people that need it.

  • Rebecca

    I also have flown Southwest with my mom when her kneecap was shattered, she had a nearly full leg cast. And they went so far out of their way and were so kind. That was over 10 years ago, and we both almost exclusively fly Southwest.

  • Rebecca

    Another interesting thing I noticed here. I’m guessing the OP here is about the same age as my mom, who’s 63. And if anyone called her elderly, especially me, I’d be in for a world of hurt. She’s not, but it seems like people in this age group either look like little old ladies (with what my mom refers to as the “bubble haircut” and embellished sweaters) or look at least 10 years younger. There’s no in between. Surely I can’t be the only person who’s noticed, there are people I see in their mid-sixties sometimes and they look at least 80.

  • Rebecca

    That’s awful. Every single time I’ve flown with my kids, who are almost 1 and almost 2, we’ll be lined up in a nice line with all the other people with strollers. And, inevitably, a woman (it’s always a frumpy woman a little older than me – I’m 35) comes over and cuts the entire line with older children, like 8 or 10 or even older once. And this is Southwest, they do it get better seats. It makes me bonkers. Every. Single. Flight.

  • fs2013

    They knew as they took her down the lift. But, really, an old woman hops in the chair and I seriously doubt anyone would have told her to get out. I just had to wait a little bit longer.

    The next part of my story was what really ticked me off. Once I got on the wheelchair, I asked the nice man pushing me to take me to the restroom. I REALLY had to use the toilet. While I was maneuvering my way out of the wheelchair at the door, some horrible woman came past me and hit BOTH my injured legs with her wheelie suitcase on her way into the restroom. Even though the attendant had said he couldn’t push me into the restroom, he did volunteer to go after in that woman for me!!!

  • Jeff W.

    A few observations.

    * If you require wheelchair assistance, then you cannot book an itinerary that has a tight connection. Period. Because you know you will be the last to leave the plane. And planes do not always arrive on time. You need to really pad your connection times.

    Having said that, things went wrong and it not the passenger’s fault. Ultimately, it is the airline or airport.

    * Since this happened in Edmonton, this would likely fall under Transport Canada regulations, not the US DOT.
    * UA was fined for in 2016 and it was noted regarding lack of services at some of its hub airports. That is an important distinction, as it quite likely the wheelchair service is under direct control of UA. At airports where an airline has a small presence, these services are outsourced to a third party or the airport provides the service. Few airlines are going to hire dedicated wheelchair porters for the small number of flights that may have, especially when not every flight needs them. So it makes sense for airlines to pool these resources.
    * And since this flight was late, the porters could have been at the gate for whatever flight was arriving on time and would have returned eventually to this late flight.

    Is $100 enough? Probably, but not sure what she is asking for.

  • Jeff W.

    I am going to give two possibilities, one of which I know you will not like.

    * It is not their job to push passengers in wheelchairs. Either from a liability standpoint or union contract standpoint. That is unfortunately the world we live in now.
    * Since the flight was late, it is possible those crew were in a hurry to make their connections. Could have been a plane on the ground waiting for the incoming crew.

  • Jeff W.

    The article also mentioned customs. Someone from the crew could never take that amount of time to wheel a person to the connection point if they needed to go through customs.

  • Jeff W.

    The article also mentioned having to clear customs. If customs was busy at that moment, the available porters could have been held up there with their current passengers.

  • bayareascott

    Just to clear up a few things…

    CRO actually stands for Complaints Resolution Official. (Just to make sure someone doesn’t look at you strangely if you use the wrong title.)

    Requesting a wheelchair “in advance” should have one waiting when you disembark an aircraft but will not have one standing by when you check in. That needs just a bit of common sense. No one knows when customers will arrive at the airport. You will just need to advise the agent that you need a wheelchair to get to the gate, and the agent will request it. It’s going to take a little time for the vendor to dispatch a wheelchair to the check-in area. (Plus, it’s certainly not the only request at that moment.) So yes, give yourself a little time.

    It is not correct that requesting wheelchair assistance means you will be last off the aircraft. If you need an aisle chair (i.e. you cannot get to the front of the aircraft without assistance), that is different. Normally, customers who have requested wheelchairs will have them standing by so they can leave the moment they are ready to disembark.

    The vendors that provide airport wheelchair services are not always at the top of their game, and it’s pretty sad. Ultimately, it is up to the airlines to monitor and ensure their vendor performance is up to snuff.

  • Harvey-6-3.5

    I read the comments below, but my recent experience was different. On United flights in Honolulu, Denver, and Dulles, there were between 6 and 12 wheelchairs waiting for passengers or loaded with passenger heading out on the connecting corridor (but all these flights were on time/a few minutes early). As far as I could tell (and we were just at the wings every time), they seemed fairly responsive.

    I wonder if the bad situations revolve around late/delayed planes where the staff has to move to a different flight and doesn’t get redirected back when the late/delayed plane actually arrives.

  • marathon man

    the lady is 92. She probably looks over 80 too. Out of sheer respect for the elderly and the FACT that most just cannot move as quickly as everybody else, if I were working for the airline I would have tried to make sure this passenger was ok or if they needed something. Then again, that’s why I do not work for an airline!

    It’s all whacked. I am not disabled or yet old, or in need of assistance but I am of the mindset to make my own collapsible wheelchair and bring it with me if I am one day! This is horrid. No excuses for it at all.

  • Lee Delong

    The ADA is applicable from point of departure.

  • Lee Delong

    We just had the best handicapped assistance from JAX , United to ANA to BKK. In all my half century of air travel.
    AA is like a criminal enterprise and Delta close second.

  • e santhin

    We travel frequently to and from Philadelphia. I understand that Philadelphia is a large city and expect a larger number of handicapped passengers than most other places. Often the line of wheelchairs with handicapped travelers stretches well outside the designated boarding area. All most all handicapped travellers are accompanied by at least one other passenger. No matter which airline we use the wheelchair is pushed to the plane by a gate agent. Once the fight arrives at its designation few of the handicapped passengers remain seated awaiting assistance. Many have joined in with regular passengers in their hurry to deplane.

    This is not to denigrate handicapped travellers but merely is intended to indicate a better system of identifying handicappers may be in order. After all the more wheelchairs requested the more assistance is required and abusers of the system can cause delay in assistance for the truely handicapped.

  • Yes, in my working days we always dreaded putting on conventions in Eastern cities because we were forbidden from carrying booth materials from the cab to the hall without waiting for the official Booth Workers Union man to deign to show up to do it.

  • joycexyz

    Wrong question. No amount of money or travel vouchers (ridiculous!) can make up for United’s flouting of the law and cavalier attitude. The real problem is the inconsequential fine in January (pocket change!) and the obvious lack of enforcement and follow-up.

  • joycexyz

    I would have yelled for her to get out of my wheelchair! And kudos to the attendant who offered to go after that horrible women.

  • joycexyz

    I don’t know why the gate agents don’t say something. Are they afraid of being called rude? The one who are rude are the line jumpers and need to be embarrassed.

  • joycexyz

    $25? Wow! Think they’ll miss it?

  • Tricia K

    It was very generous of them, wasn’t it?

  • Lindabator

    but they had to go thru Customs, and the agents can’t just wait around for that

  • Lindabator

    NOT in CANADA, which is where she had the wheelchair problem

  • Lindabator

    ADA doesn’t apply in Canada

  • Rebecca

    My experience in retail is that there is no arguing with folks like this. There just isn’t. It only creates a scene and makes it worse. They simply don’t make enough money to deal with it.

    When I worked retail, one of my favorite things to do with the crazies like that was just agree, super calmly, almost patronizing to be honest. Yes sir, you’re right. I’m so stupid. Over and over, just parrot back. It drove them nuts, because they want to argue. They don’t know what to do if you just agree with whatever they say, and call yourself names. I have thick skin though. I learned a long time ago not to care.

  • Sam Petersen

    We’ve got through customs several times in wheel chairs. They take you to the front of the line and you’re processed quickly. This last time we went through the line for diplomats at YVR.

  • DepartureLevel

    “In the meantime, experts say passengers with disabilities can put themselves in a better position by being their own advocate. Knowing your rights and over-communicating with the flight crew can help. When things go wrong, ask to speak with a Complaints Resolution Official (CRO), an employee who must be available to passengers by law.”
    ——-“over communicating with the flight crew” ??

    Didn’t Ms. Way already do this ? — see 3rd paragraph. Just another case of some dope dropping the ball along the way – the original booking agent, the gate agent at SFO and/or the gate agents at Edmonton. What does it take for people to travel, bring along their doctors, nurses and attorneys? United should not only be fined but should be paying the VICTIMS about $10,000 for their inconvenience and deception of services. Disgusting and no amount of consumer rights sites seem to fix this as it’s just today’s world – WHERE NOBODY CARES or seems adept enough to do the right thing.
    P.S. “overcommunicating” with the flight crew as suggested, would only raise the ire of the crew for being “bothered and annoyed” as they do their “all about safety” jobs.

  • DepartureLevel

    LOL, that’s what I’ve done many times and you’re right – it’s drives them nuts because they are almost forced to apologize when you are knocking your own “stupidity” and “error” instead of theirs. Love it.

  • joycexyz

    Surely there must be an equivalent in Canada?

  • Michael__K

    In the US, it’s the Air Carrier Access Act which applies (air travel is exempt from the ADA).

    But Canada’s Air Transportation Regulations have similar requirements and protections for mobility impaired passengers:

    147 (1) Subject to section 151, an air carrier shall provide the following services to a person, if requested:
    (b) assisting in proceeding to the boarding area;
    (c) assisting in boarding and deplaning;
    (i) assisting in proceeding to the general public area or, where a person is changing to a flight of another air carrier within the same terminal, to a representative of the receiving air carrier;

    151 (1) Where a person requests a service set out in this Part at least 48 hours before the scheduled time of departure of the person’s flight, the air carrier shall provide the person with the service.


  • Lori Heathorn

    Someone correct me if I am wrong, but I did not think that wheelchair assistance is under the airline purview. It is a service offered and operated by the airport. The handlers are employed by the airport, not the airline.

  • wbeeman

    I use a wheelchair in airports, and it is often the problem with the contracted service providers. These companies understaff, pay minimum wage. and in many airports are absolutely negligent. The airlines pay them and then never police them. It requires eternal vigilance to get them to comply. In addition, different airlines contract with totally different companies, so if you are flying on Delta, the American or United wheelchair attendants won’t do anything for you.

    I always check to make sure my request is in the reservations record at every point in the trip, and especially make sure the flight crew knows that I have this request. They can radio ahead to make sure there are attendants. Even so, there are often very serious lapses. I have also been left on the plane to the point that the crew becomes agitated. I was once parked outside of a gate for an hour in Atlanta. When someone finally came, I asked to speak to the supervisor, who rudely told me that I should be grateful that anyone attended to me at all.

    When I get this poor service, I always write the airline, and this has resulted in gradual improvement in service at some airports. But the problem lies with the service companies and with the airlines who fail to monitor them or assess their service.

  • wbeeman

    Now the attendants usually show up with a specific name for the person they are supposed to be attending. In many airports they have iPads or other tablets. But this is not universal.

  • wbeeman

    I wanted to mention something else. These wheelchair attendants all are working for slave wages in the United States. They should ALWAYS be tipped in the United States. I tip in accordance with the service received–at least $5, and for an international arrival through customs, baggage claim and on to ground transportation, $20.

    In Europe and many other places, tipping is not expected, but the attendants there are actually paid a living wage.

  • wbeeman

    Actually, in most airports the wheelchair attendants are contracted separately by each individual airline, and the contractor for airline A will not transport customers for airline B. In some smaller airports there is just one company shared by all airlines, but this is the exception. In one very small airport the airline personnel actually did this duty, but that is the rarest of all situations.

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