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While her nurses were stowing the 100 pounds of medical equipment she needs to travel with, Carrie Salberg was given a startling order: Get off the plane.
Salberg, who has muscular dystrophy, was never told why she couldn't use the ventilator she requires to breathe on the Jan. 13 flight that was supposed to carry her back home to the Twin Cities from New Orleans. In fact, just a month before the flight, Delta Air Lines said her equipment met the company's requirements.
"It was humiliating, it was upsetting, it was embarrassing," said Salberg, 33. "We just did what we were told. We didn't really have much of a choice."
Salberg's story illustrates the confusing landscape of federal regulations and airline policies that confront people with disabilities when they travel. The Air Carrier Access Act, established in 1986, prohibits discrimination against someone with disabilities during air travel, provided any necessary medical equipment is approved according to in-flight rules. But disabled travelers are increasingly complaining about their rights being violated.
In 2009, disabled passengers filed 17,068 complaints against airlines, up 22 percent from the previous year, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. In 178 cases, airlines refused to let disabled passengers board a plane, according to complaint data.
Recent changes to the federal rules governing the travel of disabled persons have in some cases misfired.
For instance, a 2009 rule was supposed to simplify the process for determining which medical equipment was approved for in-flight use. Instead of forcing crew members to inspect devices to see if they met various criteria, each approved item would come with a sticker showing it met FAA requirements.
But the federal government never authorized anyone to make the stickers, so a traveler like Salberg with approved equipment has to prove repeatedly that it meets regulations.
"They made this rule to make it easier," said Michael Luber, a Milwaukee man who was unable to fly in May 2009 because of his ventilator. "The problem is ... they don't have stickers and it's been a year and a half."
Luber said it's been frustrating that the issue wasn't dealt with earlier, but "we're a minority. Who's going to pay attention to the one in a million flying with a ventilator?"
In April, the U.S. Department of Transportation plans to revisit the rules and is considering eliminating the labeling requirement.
'Confusion and fear'
Salberg waited years to be able to travel because the equipment she needs to breathe wasn't portable. Since 2005, she has taken cruises and gone to Mexico.
"It's a lot of work and a lot of planning and getting on and off the plane is pretty much the worst part of a trip," said Salberg, a board member for Access Press, a community newspaper for the disabled. "But it's worth it."
While planning her trip to New Orleans to visit a friend, Salberg and her mother contacted Delta to make sure they understood the airline's rules for medical equipment. Salberg also had a certificate of compliance from the manufacturer.
Her flight to New Orleans went smoothly. She even got a free upgrade to first class.
Salberg's problems began shortly before takeoff on her return flight. As one of her nurses lugged a 25-pound battery on board, she was stopped and told that the pilot needed to inspect it.
Salberg, who was already in her seat, said she couldn't tell the flight crew she already had airline approval because she didn't have the device she needs to speak. Crew members were shown the compliance letter and told Salberg had flown previously, but those reassurances were brushed off.
"It's intimidating because they have the authority to bump you off the flight and you don't have the expertise to argue with them," Salberg said.
Instead of a direct flight -- which Salberg had paid extra for -- her group was put on a flight to Atlanta, delaying their arrival in Minneapolis by about five hours. The delay meant Salberg couldn't drink anything because she isn't able to use a public restroom.
"It's more than just an inconvenience," Salberg said. "It can be a matter of health when they make decisions like that."
Joan Headley, executive director of the International Ventilator Users Network, said one of the biggest problems passengers with ventilators face is a lack of consistency in how airline crews interpret the rules. In Salberg's case, a company representative said the mistake happened because the flight crew was using manuals that were long out of date.
"There's always confusion and fear," Headley said. "You don't know for sure what's going to happen when you actually get to the gate."
Salberg filed her complaint with Delta two weeks ago, but she didn't hear back until this week, after Whistleblower inquired about the incident.
At first, Delta gave Salberg and her nurses $50 flight vouchers. But on Thursday a Delta representative told Salberg she would get a full refund for all three tickets, which cost $340 each, plus additional vouchers worth $900.
"We are, of course, offering our apologies to this customer and are thoroughly reviewing how some isolated outdated information about ventilators led to her inconvenience on Jan. 13," Delta said in a written statement. "We are also working closely with our Delta Connection carriers to ensure their information about ventilators is also up to date and communicated appropriately."
A Delta spokesman said the company will increase training and make sure all manuals are updated. Delta expects similar action by its regional partners -- including Compass Airlines, which operated Salberg's flight.
Salberg said she won't let this experience stop her. High on her wish list: trips to San Francisco and New York.
"It's going to take some time, but I'm going to get there eventually," Salberg said.
Lora Pabst • 612-673-4628