Delta Reaches Out to Passengers with Disabilities

In April 2008, Delta and Northwest Airlines announced they were merging, and the Northwest Customer Advisory Board was moved under Delta Air Lines. Delta’s reformulated Advisory Board on Disability held its first meeting in April 2009. I was asked to join the ABD and I accepted.

The ABD is a cross-disability, voluntary board with 13 members, 11 of them with disabilities. I have to say that I am really excited about this independent living application in the corporate world. As a passenger, I have experienced my share of problems and challenges with air travel. Now, we who serve on the ABD board are empowered to do something about the problems that have affected us and our peers with disabilities.

I would like to share a few committee initiatives. The Research and Quality Assurance committee developed the Delta Task Analysis Assessment Tool, which examines the “travel ribbon” — the travel experience from the beginning to the end of a trip, from arriving at the curb to arriving at your destination. At each point along the travel ribbon, we analyzed what problems could occur, who might be responsible and how to fix them. Elements identified about travel problems and suggestions for how to address them are now being integrated into thorough two-day compliance audits in airports where Delta has a high concentration of travelers with disabilities.

Following up on recent ABD discussions, a white paper on Wheelchair and Assistive Device damage was written to develop a comprehensive strategic plan to reduce damage. This internal Delta document contains a root cause analysis of personal and environmental factors contributing to damage of passenger’s personal equipment and strategies to be implemented to address the contributing factors.

The Education and Outreach committee is developing a “Traveling Tips for Travelers with Disabilities” booklet to help passengers advocate for themselves. Also, Delta conducts education and outreach programs designed to familiarize individuals with newly acquired disabilities or first-time flyers with disabilities with a behind-the-scene tour showing them what to expect.

In November 2013 ABD created a Special Projects committee to help Delta enhance its connections with people with disabilities and family members. Our most recent collaboration is with the Annual Family Café, a gathering of people with disabilities in Florida who meet annually to learn, grow, advocate and gain encouragement from others’ life experiences. Over 8,000 people are expected to attend this event in June 2014.

Over half a billion passengers flew across all domestic carriers in 2013. Estimates suggest that passengers with disabilities represent about 15 million of these travelers and of those, Delta carries about 1.6 million each year. Given the sheer magnitude of passengers traveling, the odds are that there will be problems for some passengers — including those with disabilities. Statistics are all well and good, but when you become the statistic, this issue gets up close and personal. Most reasonable travelers with disabilities realize this. However, if they see evidence that the airline does not care, then it would be appropriate to advocate with the airline’s complaint resolution official.

Well prepared travelers with working knowledge of the travel ribbon do not fear air travel but work together with airlines to receive reasonable accommodations and the same opportunities that any other traveler would expect. The travel ribbon is flexible, but can become frayed from too much stress, or even snap under extreme tension. Several of the ABD initiatives help to reinforce the travel ribbon. Delta still has lots to do to level the field, but the airline is trying to show that they can make “the Delta Difference.”

• Delta, Travelers with Disabilities, www.delta.com/content/www/en_US/traveling-with-us/special-travel-needs/disabilities.html
• Family Café, www.familycafe.net

Glen White is a behavioral community psychologist and professor in Applied Behavioral Science. He also directs a NIDRR-funded Research and Training Center on Independent Living at the University of Kansas and is the current Chair of the Delta Advisory Board on Disability.

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