Data released by the Department of Transportation reveals that, in 2022, the department received some 2,095 complaints concerning the treatment of disabled airline passengers. This represents a significant increase of nearly 50% from the 1,397 complaints received in 2021 and a staggering 131% increase from the 905 complaints received in pre-pandemic 2019. These figures are alarming and highlight a concerning trend of mistreatment of disabled airline passengers.

Complaints too numerous to report in 2023

Data from January and February 2023 showed a continued rise in disability-related complaints, with the Department receiving a total of 356 — an increase of nearly 57% from the 227 disability complaints filed during the first two months of 2022. The USDOT has failed to report additional complaints data for 2023, writing in its May 2023 Air Travel Consumer Report (ATCR), which would have included March 2023 figures, that:

The Department received a high volume of air travel service complaints and inquiries against airlines and ticket agents in recent months. The Department’s Office of Aviation Consumer Protection is working diligently to process the large number of complaints and inquiries received. Nevertheless, the issuance of the ATCR has been delayed because of the time needed to review and process these consumer complaints. Consumer complaint data for March and January-March 2023 will be publicly available in its usual format in July 2023.

That reporting promise was not kept — no further consumer complaint data for 2023 has been released through the publication of the October 2023 ATCR. If the USDOT is unable to report even the number of complaints received, what hope is there of a timely response and investigation of disabled passengers’ allegations?

Why disability complaints data is important and what kicked-off the rapid acceleration

Disabled passengers have long faced challenges when it comes to air travel. Despite calls to improve accessibility and inclusivity, disabled passengers routinely face discrimination, discomfort, and inconvenience. These challenges were even more acute during the pandemic, as airlines reduced staff and implemented policies and procedures that the federal government agreed were discriminatory violations of the Air Carrier Access Act.

RELATED: Read about my fight to overturn American Airlines’ illegal ban on large power wheelchairs during the pandemic, the harm that policy caused, and how the DOT put a stop to the carrier’s discriminatory policy.

The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the challenges faced by disabled passengers. Many airlines changed their procedures, requiring the use of personal protective equipment and implementing social distancing measures. While those measures likely contributed to the protection of public health, they were selectively enforced and made travel more difficult for some disabled travelers. For example, wearing a face mask was especially challenging if not impossible for those with respiratory issues, sensory sensitivities or other disabilities.

Even with face mask policies long behind us, disability-related complaints have continued to increase — now almost triple the number received in pre-pandemic 2019. This sustained multi-year rise in complaints received by the Department of Transportation is a clear indication that more needs to be done to ensure the rights of disabled airline passengers are protected. The Department of Transportation should work with airlines to develop and implement policies that ensure the rights of disabled passengers are protected, while also leveraging their enforcement authority to defend those passengers’ right to equal access.

Final Thoughts

The increase in complaints from disabled airline passengers should raise alarm bells within the halls of the Department of Transportation. The disability community is fed up with the status quo that is marked by longstanding inaccessibility, discrimination, a lack of accountability and an infuriatingly slow pace of progress. Bold regulatory and enforcement efforts are needed to improve accessibility and inclusivity in air travel — a significant campaign of accountability that will demand that the dignity and respect of disabled passengers be maintained. Come on, already!

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