Delta Air Lines left a blind woman in a wheelchair alone on a moving walkway. An 81-year-old passenger spent the night sleeping in a wheelchair because Delta failed to bring him to a hotel after his flight was canceled. An elderly couple missed an international flight because Delta agents left them sitting in their wheelchairs when the plane was being boarded.

After reviewing more than 5,000 such complaints against the airline by disabled passengers, the U.S. Department of Transportation slapped Delta with a record fine of $2 million on Thursday. The federal agency said many of the violations were "egregious" and accused Delta of breaking rules meant to make it easier for disabled passengers to fly, in part by providing access to wheelchairs.

The penalty against Delta, which merged with Eagan-based Northwest Airlines in 2008 and maintains a hub at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, is the largest the department has ever assessed against an airline in a case not involving safety violations.

"Ensuring that passengers with disabilities receive fair treatment when they fly is a priority for the Department of Transportation," department Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement. "We take our aviation disability rules seriously and will continue to enforce them vigorously."

Delta agreed to settle the case to avoid litigation, but the airline did not admit breaking the rules, according to the consent order. Included in the amount of the fine is $1.25 million Delta agreed to spend on various improvements, including an automated wheelchair tracking system, a customer satisfaction survey and better compliance auditing.

White Bear Lake resident Carrie Salberg, a disabled woman kicked off a Delta flight last month, hopes the stiff penalty sends a message to the entire airline industry.

"I'm glad to hear that someone is paying attention and I'm glad to see that the Department of Transportation is taking the violations seriously," said Salberg, who travels with 100 pounds of medical equipment and requires a ventilator to breathe. "I do wish that Delta took them as seriously."

Not the first time

Salberg, whose story appeared in the Star Tribune two weeks ago, said Delta and Northwest forced her to wait for wheelchairs on numerous occasions, including a January trip to New Orleans.

This isn't the first time Delta has been punished for violations related to disabled passengers. In 2003, Delta was fined $1.35 million for failing to provide wheelchair assistance, stranding disabled passengers and other violations. Delta was supposed to spend most of the money to "improve its quality of service to disabled air travelers," according to the 2003 order.

Morgan Durrant, a spokesman for the Atlanta-based airline, said Delta has made "significant investments in technology, feedback assessment and training" since the complaints from 2007 and 2008 cited in the consent order.

In 2009, 2,377 disability-related complaints were filed against Delta, more than at any other U.S. airline, records show.

Delta said the number of complaints represents a tiny portion of Delta flights taken by disabled customers, according to the order.

Since 2008, the U.S. Department of Transportation has fined 11 other airlines for practices against disabled passengers. In the past year, AirTran Airways was fined $500,000, JetBlue Airways was fined $600,000 and Twin Cities-based Mesaba Aviation was fined $125,000 for violations related to disabled passengers.

Carole Zoom of Austin, Texas, an advocate for the disabled, said she was booted off a flight operated by another airline because of her ventilator. A different airline left her on the tarmac of an airport while workers scrambled to find her personal wheelchair. Zoom said she's missed connecting flights several times because airlines failed to bring her wheelchair.

"It's unfortunate to know that seven years later, the same kinds of violations are going on," Zoom said, referring to the 2003 action against Delta. "I have to say that common sense and good customer service would go a long way toward resolving that issue."

In the most recent consent order, Delta agreed to install more elevators and allow customers to specify the type of wheelchair help they need when buying a ticket on the airline's website. The airline will also install additional ramps for boarding regional flights. The automated wheelchair tracking system will be installed at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and the carrier's other major hubs.

Pat Hogan, spokesman for the Twin Cities airport, said wheelchair access is an area that needs improvement among all airlines. He said the Delta fine will generate discussion about the problem, but it's something that's already being looked at due to the large number of baby boomers who travel.

"This is an issue that the aviation industry is paying a lot more attention to these days," Hogan said.

Lora Pabst • 612-673-4628 Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482