Travelers with disabilities have never had it easy, and a flurry of recent cases provides further evidence of that. But these cases may well improve access to airplanes, buses, hotels and perhaps even foreign-flagged cruise ships.
In the last five months, United Airlines and Greyhound Lines settled claims alleging that they mistreated passengers using wheelchairs. In December, after complaints prompted a federal probe, Days Inns of America agreed to improve access at its new hotels nationwide.
Meanwhile, the Justice Department is challenging cruise lines that say they're exempt from the Americans With Disabilities Act. That law, passed by Congress in 1990, aims to improve access as businesses renovate old buildings and construct new ones.
There are at least two lessons here. First, the ADA doesn't guarantee that all lodgings and transport will meet its requirements. Many have complained that the law is vague. Often it takes a lawsuit to settle rival interpretations. With so much uncertainty, it's crucial to ask detailed questions about telephones, toilets, doorways and other facilities before you book.
Second lesson: If you think a hotel, airline, bus or ship has fallen short, complain. It could ease the way for those who follow.
The U.S. Department of Transportation logged 70 complaints from disabled airline passengers in November, an increase from 41 complaints in November 1998.
Problems arise on the ground as well. Greyhound, a Dallas-based company that carries more than 20 million passengers annually, agreed to pay damages to 14 disabled passengers who said they were denied boarding assistance, that they were injured while being carried on and off buses or that they were verbally harassed.
Beginning April 1, Greyhound will guarantee accessible (lift-equipped) buses between any of the 2,600 points it serves as long as passengers give 48 hours' notice.
In December, operators of Days Inn of America, one of the nation's largest hotel chains, signed a settlement calling for greater accessibility to new U.S. hotels. The agreement resolved five Justice Department lawsuits dating to 1996.
Days Inn agreed to pay for an independent survey of its new hotels to identify ADA problems and set up a $4.75 million fund to help franchisees finance renovations.
The agreement followed a federal investigation of new Days Inns nationwide that found inaccessible entrances and walkways; inadequate space for wheelchairs in bedrooms and bathrooms; and doors too narrow for wheelchairs.
Most cruise ships -- unlike airlines, hotels and bus companies -- have operated for years outside many U.S. laws, including ADA requirements. Though ships often include many facilities for disabled travelers, the vessels are registered in foreign countries, which allows cruise lines to sidestep ADA mandates. But a new legal challenge seeks to extend ADA coverage to the cruise industry and has the backing of the Justice Department.
Meanwhile, the cruise industry's lobbying organization continues to argue that the ADA should not be applied to cruise lines because of their international nature.
WHERE TO COMPLAIN
The U.S. Department of Transportation records complaints by phone (202-366-2220), by e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org) and by conventional mail (Aviation Consumer Protection Division, U.S. Department of Transportation, Room 4107, C-75, Washington, D.C. 20590). Information is also available on the DOT Web site at www.dot.gov/airconsumer.
For questions and complaints about hotels and other facilities covered by the Americans With Disabilities Act, the Justice Department maintains an information line at 800-514-0301 (voice) and 800-514-0383 (TDD).