The U.S. Transportation Department hit Delta Air Lines with a $2 million fine for its treatment of disabled travelers, in what the department is calling the largest civil penalty it has ever assessed in a non-safety-related case. The fine “establishes a strong deterrent to future, similar unlawful practices by Delta and other carriers,” the DOT says in its consent order for the case (Order 2011-2-10).
In the order, the department says an investigation by its aviation enforcement office revealed numerous violations of the requirement to provide assistance to disabled travelers for getting on and off aircraft. Some of those violations were “egregious,” by which it typically means the customers had long waits for assistance or may have missed flights as a result.
It also says Delta’s complaint files showed that it frequently did not provide an adequate written response to disability-related complaints from passengers; under federal rules, carriers must respond within 30 days to written complaints and specifically address the issues raised in them. Delta also failed to file proper reports of each disability complaint to the department.
To reach its conclusions, the office reviewed all disability-related complaints Delta received from passengers during 12-week-long samples in 2007 and 2008, as well as all complaints the department received directly from Delta passengers in 2007 and 2008. In its public response to the announcement of the fine, Delta said, “We take the responsibility of serving customers with disabilities seriously and have made significant investments in technology, feedback assessment and training since the issues in 2007 and 2008 that the DOT cites in its consent order.”
The consent order does not constitute an admission of violations, but rather an agreement to settle the case to avoid further litigation.
Of the of $2 million penalty, $750,000 must be paid by the carrier and up to $1.25 million may be used to improve its service to passengers with disabilities beyond what is required by law.
Delta may target up to $834,000 of the penalty amount toward the development and implementation of an automated wheelchair tracking system at the carrier's major hub airports. As much as $236,000 may be used toward developing and distributing customer service surveys for passengers with disabilities to rate Delta’s accommodation services and provide specific feedback to the carrier on how it can improve.
Up to $150,000 may be used to expand audits of the carrier’s compliance with Air Carrier Access Act rules and for consultation to help improve the quality of Delta’s services to passengers with disabilities at airports, and up to $30,000 may be used to enhance the airline's website to improve air travel accessibility.
The DOT says the actual costs of these improvements by Delta will be significantly greater than the credited amounts. The consent order quotes Delta as defending its record by telling the department that it has established industry-leading programs for its customers with disabilities, and that it continually strengthens its programs by creating new structures to oversee, manage and enhance services provided to customers with disabilities.
“Delta believes that the new structures, together with other disability-program enhancements, demonstrate Delta's total commitment to its long-standing policy of full compliance,” the department says in the order.
The airline also told the DOT “it has committed and continues to commit substantial sums of money and other resources to the advancement and protection of the interests of its customers with disabilities,” and established an “industry-leading advisory board composed of individuals representing a cross-section of disabilities.” It also created a cross-divisional Disability Compliance Council.