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The vagaries of airport wheelchair service

William Witters, of Valparaiso, Ind., waits for a

William Witters, of Valparaiso, Ind., waits for a ride in a wheelchair after passing through security at Chicago Midway International Airport last month. (Nov. 26, 2013) Credit: AP

Earlier this year, a reader had a six-hour cancer surgery at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. After discharge, he was still quite weak and asked his airline to provide wheelchair service at Rochester, his connecting airport and his final destination.

The trip started out reasonably well, but at his home airport, he had to stand in the cold at the open airplane door for 15 minutes before someone came to help with the wheelchair.

And during the trip, one of the wheelchair attendants told him that they were paid at less than minimum wage in an employment category -- along with restaurant waiters -- of workers dependent on tips for a majority of their income.

If you are routinely required to use a wheelchair, the Americans with Disabilities Act requires airlines to accept wheelchairs either as cabin baggage or checked baggage without charge, along with lots of other requirements for seating and access to lavatories.

Their contracts of carriage spell out these requirements in detail. Airports are similarly required to accommodate wheelchair travelers.

But wheelchair service to travelers who just need assistance coping with the often extensive walks between gates or between counters and gates is, contractually and legally, in something of a twilight zone.


Contractual commitment

I found only one airline that specifically commits to wheelchair service in its contract of carriage: Alaska promises it at every airport it serves.

Delta makes a similar promise in its Customer Service Plan, and JetBlue's plan states that wheelchair service is available from a "business partner." The other airlines are either vague or mention nothing at all.


Who does it

As far as I can tell, the folks who actually provide airport wheelchair assistance are usually employees of third-party passenger service companies. Big airports have typically outsourced this and similar work to subcontractors, in many cases at very low wages.


What they're paid

I see plenty of evidence that these employees work at very low pay. Some large airport operators, led by San Francisco and Seattle, have enacted minimum wage requirements, although they face legal challenges; workers at the three Port Authority airports in the New York City area -- Kennedy, LaGuardia and Newark Liberty -- are currently organizing for a minimum wage drive. But those are isolated instances. Most attendants you encounter are likely to be working at or below minimum wage.


Tip or no tip?

One of the (few) bright spots of air travel these days is its relative freedom from the excessive tipping that plagues other facets of travel.

The last time I had to tip anyone for an air trip was way back, when the only way to reclaim a checked bag was to hand your baggage check to a skycap who took your bag off a cart and handed it to you -- a procedure many of you are too young to remember.



If you require wheelchair assistance:

--Given the low wages paid to wheelchair attendants, I suspect most of you would want to tip. Published tipping "guides" range from $2 to $20, depending on the extent of the service. My suggestion would probably be around $5.

--Because services are provided by third-party outfits not directly managed by airlines or airports, coordination can be less than ideal, so you might want to pad your connecting time at any big hub airport, if you can.


Ticket change

My reader encountered another not-well-understood problem. Because he was unsure about how long he would have to stay at the Mayo Clinic, he chose to fly to Rochester on American Airlines and paid the extra $68 for a ticket that allowed a no-fee ticket exchange.

Paying no change fee, however, doesn't mean you don't pay more. When you change, you have to pay the lowest currently available fare for your replacement ticket, which can be a lot more than your original fare.

Be warned.

Ed Perkins writes the Seniors on the Go column for Tribune Media Services.

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