BUSINESS

United Airlines fined $2.75 million over treatment of disabled fliers and tarmac delays

The U.S. Department of Transportation has fined United Airlines $2.75 million over the carrier's treatment of disabled passengers and for stranding passengers on delayed flights for more than three hours.

The federal agency said an investigation of United Airlines' treatment of disabled passengers was sparked by "a significant increase in the number of disability-related complaints."

"A review of these disability-related complaints revealed that United failed to provide passengers with disabilities prompt and adequate assistance with enplaning and deplaning aircraft," the  Transportation Department said in a statement.

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Those complaints included an incident in October when a passenger with cerebral palsy was forced to crawl out of a United flight because airline crew failed to provide him with a special wheelchair that he requested. The airline publicly apologized to the flier a week later.

In an employee newsletter Thursday, United Airlines said it had begun testing a new smartphone app and other technology so that passengers and crew members can more quickly order wheelchairs on planes and in terminals.

“We expect this to greatly improve our ability to have wheelchairs where they need to be, when they need to be there, so that our customers can get on their way home or to their next destination with ease,” said Jon Roitman, senior vice president of airport operations at United.

Of the $2-million fine assessed over the violations against disabled passengers, United has agreed to spend $150,000 to improve audits of its wheelchair vendors and $500,000 toward developing the technology to make it easier for passengers to request wheelchairs.

The remaining $750,000 of the fine was because of five lengthy delays that stranded passengers on the tarmac at Chicago O'Hare International Airport on Dec. 8, 2013, plus another lengthy delay at Houston's William P. Hobby Airport on May 20, 2015. All six delays kept passengers on the planes for more than three hours because of severe weather.

Under a 2010 rule, commercial airlines are prohibited from holding passengers on a delayed flight for more than three hours without giving them the option to leave the plane. The time limit extends to four hours for international flights. 

To read more about travel, tourism and the airline industry, follow Hugo Martin on Twitter at @hugomartin.

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