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Statement in Regard to Delta Air Lines from James Shepherd, Co-Founder and Chairman of the Board of Directors, Shepherd Center

In the early 1990s, Delta Air Lines began offering accessibility tours of its facilities and aircraft at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport to teach Shepherd Center patients and their families — some of whom have never flown before — what to expect when they travel on Delta.

The company also helped Shepherd’s Therapeutic Recreation Department develop a travel class to educate and encourage patients about the independence that can be theirs once again when they travel. To alleviate travel anxiety, patients can practice transfers from their wheelchairs to airplane seats donated by Delta. The class trains patients in using a straight-back chair (used to make transfers on and off aircraft) and a hydraulic transfer chair – both donated by Delta. Recently, Delta supplier Harvaire Inc. donated to Shepherd a state-of-the-art Haycomp Eagle transfer hoist. This innovative technology allows people with mobility limitations to transfer to an aircraft seat with less hands-on assistance and more dignity than ever before. The travel class at Shepherd includes a visit to the airport to complete the training experience.

This interaction with Shepherd patients and staff provides great value to Delta, as well. The company’s service providers, agents and complaint resolution officials gain insight about accessibility issues in talking directly with Shepherd Center patients and families, as well as Shepherd therapists.

Furthermore, Delta has created a Customer Advisory Board on Disabilities to advise them on how to best serve travelers with disabilities and help them prevent or address and resolve any complaints related to violations of the Air Carriers Access Act. Shepherd Center’s director of advocacy, Mark Johnson, has been an active member of this board since 2009.

Shepherd Center is grateful to Delta for partnering with Shepherd Center to improve the lives of people with disabilities. And we are pleased that this partnership is helping Delta achieve its goals of making travel accessible for all its customers and becoming the airline of choice for customers with disabilities in every aspect of its business. We also appreciate the high level of support and incredible focus that Delta has placed on continuously improving its services to people with disabilities. It is reflected in Delta’s customer satisfaction rate, which exceeds 99 percent among travelers with disabilities.

In regard to the DOT fine of Delta:

Despite Delta’s excellent efforts and a complaint rate of less than one-tenth of 1 percent (.1 percent), they face a punitive system of federal regulation in regard to accommodating travelers with disabilities. The Air Carriers Access Act, as it exists and is enforced by the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT), is typically the wrong approach. In this case, the USDOT chose to use offsets that allow Delta to put monies toward service improvements rather than simply paying a punitive fine.

We need more bias toward an incentive-based approach in which airlines can be rewarded in some way for the good things they do to assist travelers with disabilities and not just penalized for violations. In Atlanta, Delta assists 1,900 to 2,700 passengers with disabilities per day, and the average number of complaints is only 1.5 to 1.8 per day (less than a tenth of a percent). Hopefully, the shift to offsets will begin to include credits for performance. Also, the USDOT should consider consulting with travelers with disabilities so the agency can develop the expertise to evaluate the legitimacy of consumer complaints.

About Shepherd Center

Shepherd Center provides world-class clinical care, research, and family support for people experiencing the most complex conditions, including spinal cord and brain injuries, multi-trauma, traumatic amputations, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and pain. An elite center recognized as both Spinal Cord Injury and Traumatic Brain Injury Model Systems, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News as one of the nation’s top hospitals for rehabilitation. Shepherd Center treats thousands of patients annually with unmatched expertise and unwavering compassion to help them begin again.