CHARLOTTE, N.C. — When three women flew through Charlotte Douglas International Airport during the course of the last year, they sat waiting unattended, even though they requested special assistance to help them travel despite their disabilities.
Two of the three women missed their flights. Two of the three soiled themselves. One spent the night at the airport.
All three felt abandoned.
The fear Henrietta Brand, Tracey Whitley and Ouida Sloan experienced during their travels underscores a growing nationwide problem that has impacted tens of thousands of passengers with disabilities.
"I think this is the first time I ever got scared of something, just naturally scared of something," Brand, 78, said from inside her New York home. "Oh, I got mad okay. I'm just glad that I was my age right now where I wasn't better than this because I would have hit somebody. How could they just be so hardcore?"
Brand's family said she is battling early-onset Alzheimer's. After visiting one of her daughters in Charlotte in March, she arrived at the airport early for her return trip to New York. Her kids requested special wheelchair assistance through Delta to help her get on and off the plane.
Brand said workers brought her to a waiting area ahead of her flight home and didn't come back.
"They left me alone in the room," she said. "Everybody was gone. Everyone. I'm looking towards where you walk in and I don't see nobody with the chair or nothing. Every plane had come in and gone and I'm still sitting there. All they do is walk up and down the place laughing and talking to each other and you got people to take care of."
Her plane departed for New York without her. While she sat alone scared, her children panicked.
"Just hearing my mom even now it's extremely emotional," April Best said. "I'm really just trying to hold back the tears."
Federal law requires airlines to offer people with disabilities help with wheelchairs, but the most recently available federal data show the number of complaints received by the U.S. Department of Transportation related to a lack of adequate assistance for people using wheelchairs nearly tripled from 2004 through 2018. DOT records show more than 17,000 documented complaints in 2018 alone.
Tracey Whitley, 56, a fellow New Yorker, knows what it feels like to be one of those people.
"I felt disrespected," she said.
Whitley, who is legally blind and battling multiple sclerosis, didn't wait nearly as long but said American Airlines workers abandoned her twice during a layover in Charlotte in November.
"She said she would come back and she never came back," Whitley said.
With no one available to help, Whitley said she had no choice but to relieve herself as she sat unattended in a wheelchair.
"I was sitting there and had to go to the bathroom and these people never did come back," she said.
"How did that feel?" WCNC Charlotte asked her.
"Disgusting," Whitley replied. "How can this happen? It's just ridiculous that you cannot get someone to assist you."
Whitnee Carter said her 72-year-old mother from Virginia also soiled herself because she couldn't hold it any longer.
"She was confused and didn't know how to get to the restroom in the airport," Carter said.
Ouida Sloan stopped in Charlotte for an American Airlines layover last June. Carter said the airline abandoned her mom, a stroke survivor who also suffers from dementia.
"She got left at the gate," Carter said. "She was told that someone would be there to get her and no one ever came and she was not the only person that was there."
As a result, Carter said her mother missed her layover and had to spend the night at the airport.
"It's shameful," she said. "If I request wheelchair assistance for my mother, I expect that to happen. We don't trust the system anymore. I hope it gets rectified quickly."
Disability Rights North Carolina Attorney Chris Hodgson said while passengers can file complaints with airlines and the Department of Transportation, that's the extent of their recourse. He said they can't bring a lawsuit.
"There's no private right to do that," he told WCNC Charlotte. "There's just no way to compensate somebody for the discrimination they've experienced the way the system has currently been set up. Congress has created special protections for the airline industry that don't effectively address discrimination, disability-based discrimination."
The American Bar Association has urged Congress to change federal law so passengers can sue, citing "frequent and significant violations" of passengers' civil rights, including "delayed assistance.” The ABA has said the end goal is to create a deterrent effect, so other mobility-impaired travelers never have to suffer the same fate as Ouida, Tracey and Henrietta.
In Henrietta's case, it appears a contract worker took her to the wrong gate and then never alerted the proper people, according to Delta. The airline noted the shift manager doesn't work for the contractor anymore.
The company encourages travelers who need special services to add specific notes to their reservations to better guide workers.
"Delta's core values are centered on treating each customer with dignity and respect and we take this report with the utmost seriousness," Delta said in a statement. "Our teams are investigating the situation and working with local contract leadership to review these events and ensure adherence to all policies in place to provide the welcoming and inclusive environment all customers deserve."
Brand's daughter said she'll never trust the system enough to allow her mom to travel alone again.
"Would she go again alone? Absolutely not." Best said. "Would we let her? Absolutely not."
American Airlines, meanwhile, admitted in the cases of Ouida and Tracey, the airline fell short.
"Our mission is to ensure customers of all abilities have a positive travel experience, and in these instances we fell short," American Airlines said. "Since last summer, American has been working closely with our wheelchair support vendor to ensure we have appropriate staff and resources available to care for customers throughout their journey. Our team has been in regular communication with both Ms. Sloan and Ms. Whitley to apologize for their experience and to learn how we can improve."
The airline said it has added zones in each concourse to offer extra support for travelers who need wheelchair assistance. American said its wheelchair contractor faced staffing issues last summer as more people returned to the skies, but has hired nearly 250 workers in the year since. The airline said the contractor is now properly staffed and as a result of those new employees and management oversight, reported problems have decreased at CLT.
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