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Lawmakers demand protection for passengers failed by airline wheelchair workers

Multiple travelers with disabilities said wheelchair assistants at Charlotte abandoned them. Two members of Congress want better protection for those passengers.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Lawmakers are calling Congress to do its part as they seek solutions to prevent ongoing discrimination against airline travelers with disabilities. 

WCNC Charlotte has now documented even more cases of passengers at Charlotte-Douglas International Airport left to fend for themselves despite requesting wheelchair help.

Laurie Miner said she nearly fell down an escalator in May when an American Airlines worked abandoned her. After sitting alone for 20 minutes, Miner said she gave up on the idea of waiting for help and tried to make it to baggage claim on her own.

"I put my cane on (the escalator) and it started to move. I lost my balance and I caught myself on the rail," Miner said. "I was very scared and I was also angry."

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Credit: WCNC Charlotte

The 67-year-old Charlotte woman said she has nerve damage in her feet and osteoarthritis in her knees.

"I got in the wheelchair and I was wheeled up the ramp and that's where the assistance stopped," she said. "The young man said to me, 'I'm sorry I have to help other people. You have to find somebody else to assist you.'"

Credit: WCNC Charlotte

Miner joined several others who've reported similar failures over the last year. Some soiled themselves. Some missed their flights. One had to spend the night at the airport. They all felt helpless.

"I thought they would be there for me," Miner said. "I don't think they should offer wheelchair assistance if they can't support the service."

Credit: WCNC Charlotte

Rhode Island Rep. Jim Langevin, a Democrat, is the first quadriplegic to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives. He and Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin, also a Democrat, filed legislation last year that would give travelers with disabilities the right to sue airlines for discrimination, which is a non-existent right today.

Their bill, which is stalled in Washington, would result in tougher consequences, better accessibility and improved safety, all at a time when airline wheelchair complaints have dramatically increased.

"These things need to be addressed. It shouldn't happen. Look, I'm a congressman and I've had bad experiences, unfortunately, dealing with airlines on some occasions," Langevin told WCNC Charlotte. "The ultimate goal here is not to create more litigation or impose more fines. We just want the airlines to do the right thing."

WCNC Charlotte is always asking "where's the money?" If you need help, reach out to WCNC Charlotte by emailing money@wcnc.com.

At a congressional hearing earlier this year, U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg announced plans for a new rule that would make delaying wheelchairs punishable by fines and would lead to improved training.

"I hear story after story of people with disabilities who have had their wheelchairs damaged, lacked seating accommodations, and dealt with burdensome barriers when traveling," Senator Baldwin said in a statement to WCNC Charlotte. "It is past time we break down the roadblocks that individuals with disabilities face when they travel and my legislation will do just that. Equal access to air travel for individuals with disabilities is about the fairness and freedom our community members deserve. The Air Carrier Access Amendments Act will enhance the rights and safety of airline passengers with disabilities, including our brave veterans who served our country honorably."

Credit: WCNC Charlotte

Former flight attendant Shelly-Ann Cawley isn't waiting for bureaucrats and elected leaders.

"Proper staffing needs to be addressed," the Travelers Care CEO said. "We need to see people being treated with dignity."

After her mother's poor traveling experience several years ago, she started a company to help vulnerable travelers.

"As someone being in the industry, I've seen it happen, but having it happen to me and my mother, it was extremely painful to watch," Cawley said. "She was calling me because there was nobody to take her to where the restroom was."

After WCNC Charlotte questioned American Airlines about the treatment of two passengers, the company said its wheelchair contractor in Charlotte hired almost 250 workers over the last year to attain proper staffing.

Even so, Miner still fell through the cracks.

"At Charlotte, it was terrible," she said.

Miner said her experience was especially disappointing considering the wheelchair assistance on the front end of her trip in San Francisco was exceptional.

"They were just wonderful," Miner said. "They took us everywhere. They waited outside of the bathroom for me."

She filed formal complaints with the U.S. Department of Transportation and American Airlines. The airline has since apologized directly to her, promised to use her feedback to help improve service and offered a $100 trip credit.

"It's not about money," Miner told WCNC Charlotte. "It's about trust in the disability assistance that is offered, and the airline making effective changes by hiring people who care about their job to assist disabled people. At this time, I don't feel comfortable flying out of Charlotte again."

Contact Nate Morabito at nmorabito@wcnc.com and follow him on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

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