US Airways and United Airlines practice “discriminatory” pricing, study finds

US Airways and United Airlines practiced discriminatory pricing against disabled passengers, in apparent violation of federal law, a new study conducted by Towson University finds.

The research, conducted by Jonathan Lazar, a computer and information sciences professor, found both airlines routinely refused to waive fees for blind callers booking by phone, even after being made aware of the regulations.

The results will be published in the next edition of Government Information Quarterly.

Under federal law, if callers identify themselves as having a disability and having trouble accessing the airline website, they must be offered the lowest fare available at the website at that time. A disabled caller may not be charged extra for using the phone center or making a reservation online. In either case, once the caller identifies that there is a regulation that requires either one of those two items, the airline must comply.

But that’s not what happened when researchers contacted the airlines.

Out of 60 phone calls to airlines, there were a total of 15 violations, either where the airline charged more for the fare on the phone than the fare available on the web at the time, or where the airline refused to waive the call center fee. One of the phone calls actually resulted in two separate violations.

US Airways had a failure rate of 40 percent, while United failed to comply with federal law 33 percent of the time, according to the researchers. Let’s get down to a few call samples. Here’s one to United:

United #9- The fare quoted on the phone was the same as the fare quoted online, but the airline representative indicated that there would be a fee for using the phone call center. When the caller noted that there was a federal law that required that the fee be waived, the airline representative said that they cannot waive the fee.

Here’s another from US Airways:

USAirways #7 – While the airfare on the phone was the same as the airfare online, the airline representative noted that there is a $25 fee for using the call center. When reminded about the federal regulations that prohibit someone with an impairment being charged that fee, the airline representative checked with the supervisor on-duty, came back, and said that the fee would not be waived, and the caller should just use the website. When the caller noted that the website is inaccessible and therefore they could not use the website, the airline representative said to “call tech support” but that the call center fee would not be waived.

Neither US Airways, United Airlines or the Transportation Department has responded to a request for a comment on this study. I will update this post when they do.

The conclusions are a even more unsettling. “In practice,” its authors suggest, “the discriminatory pricing is likely higher than the data in this study indicates,” adding,

While this study clearly shows that awareness of this law is insufficient among airline call centers, all of the callers knew about their rights under the regulations. In each of the study phone calls, the callers immediately acknowledged that they had a disability, that they had difficulty using the website, and that there was a regulation requiring they be charged the same fare on the phone as on the website.

The research suggests airline employees lack a basic understanding of disability laws. A large number of airline representatives sent disabled callers to the company’s tech support center or into an automated phone system to respond to an issue with inaccessibility of a website, showing a genuine lack of understanding of the needs of travelers with disabilities.

Professor Lazar’s study recommends the Transportation Department should work to raise awareness among travelers and airlines about disability rules. Although there are laws in place to protect disabled travelers, “implementation of these regulations lags behind the intent, at least in the area of preventing discriminatory pricing in the sale of airline tickets.”

(Photo: NguyenDai/Flickr Creative Commons)

Update (2 p.m.): United has responded.

We take these matters very seriously and will immediately send a reminder to everyone about how to best serve our customers with disabilities.

Update (6 p.m.) The Transportation Department has responded.

U.S. and foreign air carriers operating flights to and from the United States are prohibited from charging fees or not making web fare discounts available to passengers with disabilities who cannot use a website on the basis of their disability and thus must purchase a ticket by phone or in person.

Carriers that charge fees in such circumstances are not in compliance with the law, and the Department’s Aviation Enforcement Office will be conducting investigations of carriers’ compliance with this requirement in the near future.

The Enforcement Office has already conducted and is continuing to conduct test calls to ensure airlines are complying with the new Air Carrier Access Act regulation in other areas, such as enplaning/deplaning and the availability of Complaint Resolution Officials.

Secretary LaHood continues to believe that web site accessibility is extremely important to ensure nondiscriminatory access to air travel for people with disabilities, and we plan to issue a proposal this year to address this.

We are committed to ensuring that our air travel system is fully accessible to passengers with disabilities.

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