MINNEAPOLIS -- Northwest Airlines has agreed to pay a $75,000 penalty and invest $550,000 in improving services for disabled passengers to settle a Transportation Department discrimination complaint.
Northwest spokeswoman Kathy Peach said Thursday that most of the money will go toward extra staffing to help passengers in wheelchairs at the airline's hubs and installing assist bars in the lavatories of its new Airbus A330 jets.
Northwest will also establish a quality assurance program that will survey disabled passengers who regularly fly on Northwest. Peach said it will be the first program of its kind in the airline industry.
"We believe it is a positive outcome and we're pleased we reached the agreement," Peach said.
The Transportation Department filed the action last September, accusing Northwest of hundreds of violations of federal laws and regulations prohibiting airlines from discriminating against the disabled. It sought $3 million in fines, the largest civil penalty the department had ever proposed for such violations.
The federal agency said it found disabled passengers waiting an hour or more for wheelchairs, disabled flyers being left aboard planes, passengers missing flights after they were wheeled to the wrong gates, and a lack of airline employees available to push wheelchairs.
In one case, the department said, a disabled passenger remained stuck on a plane for more than a half hour while airline workers refused three requests from a relative to see if the woman was still in her seat.
In agreeing to the settlement, Northwest did not admit or deny the charges. Nevertheless, an administrative law judge, in accepting the deal, found that Northwest violated the law and the regulations several times.
Transportation spokesman Bill Mosley said the department usually tries to make a deal rather than go to court.
"It's a general practice to reach a compromise rather than put both the department and the carrier through litigation," Mosley said. "It saves taxpayers money. It saves the carriers money."
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