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Airport sued on disabled access

  • December 17, 2008
  • Bruce Bromley

Lawsuit cites violations at McNamara Terminal from the parking garage to the NWA-Delta gates.

ROMULUS — Detroit Metropolitan Airport could be in violation of federal laws aimed at improving access for the physically disabled, according to documents filed this week as part of a lawsuit brought against Michigan’s largest airport and airline.

An audit of the airport’s McNamara Terminal was filed earlier this week by Farmington Hills attorney Richard Bernstein on behalf of five Metro Detroit plaintiffs, who charge Metro Airport and Northwest Airlines Inc. haven’t made proper accommodations for disabled air passengers.

The report doesn’t address potential problems at Metro Airport’s two defunct terminals — the Smith and Berry — or the new North Terminal, which opened earlier this year.

The 100-page document pores through great detail on the $1.2 billion McNamara Terminal, which opened in 2002 as Northwest Airlines’ largest hub, and alleges problems exist from the parking garage to the gates.

Plaintiffs in the case claim the McNamara Terminal is in violation of a number of regulations set forth by the Americans with Disabilities Act. The federal law, enacted in 1990, prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities, and also sets forth guidelines for access to public facilities.

Airport and airline officials declined to comment on the case, citing pending litigation.

Susan Elliott, a spokeswoman for Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines Inc., which purchased Northwest in October, said employees receive comprehensive training on assisting all customers both on board and in the airport.

“Delta Air Lines is dedicated to providing safe and convenient service for all its passengers and our employees work diligently to comply with all relevant laws protecting the rights of passengers with special needs,” Elliott said in a statement.

Scott Wintner, a spokesman for the Wayne County Airport Authority, said the airport will present findings of its own audit before a judge on Thursday.

“Those findings aren’t final yet,” he said. “But we remain committed to making sure every passenger has the access to the airport they need.”

U.S. District Judge George Caram Steeh asked the parties involved to prepare their own review of compliance; those are due for a hearing scheduled for Thursday. The audit filed earlier this week by Bernstein addresses that request.

Some of the allegations of ADA non-compliance include:

• Jet bridge ramps — many built to accommodate large aircraft like an Airbus A330 and double-decker Boeing 747 — were too steep when used with smaller planes like the Airbus A319 or A320 on domestic routes.

• Curb ramps at departure and arrival roadways, valet parking areas and loading zones exceeded the 8.3 percent incline allowed by the ADA, measuring between 9.8 percent and 11.9 percent in the areas surveyed.

• The slope of many parking spaces exceeded the 2 percent maximum permitted by law, measuring between 4.3 percent and 7.8 percent. Though the law requires that handicapped-accessible parking spaces be located closest to a building’s entrance, other non-designated spots were often closer.

• Wheelchairs can’t safely travel on moving walkways, but the audit found no alternate route from certain areas of McNamara’s garage, which uses moving walkways to transport passengers from three of the garage’s four sections to the main terminal.

On Thursday, the airport could agree to negotiate ways to comply, if the violations are substantiated. Otherwise, the discovery process could continue and the case could move to trial.

Should the airport have to make major structural changes to comply with ADA violations, it could cost the Airport Authority millions of dollars.

“What the judge decides in Detroit can drive change throughout the country,” said Gary Talbot, the Boston engineer who performed the audit. If the airport and Northwest address the problems found in the audit, he said, “that airport becomes world class.”

Peter Berg of the Great Lakes ADA Center in Chicago said that ADA rules can be easy to overlook because they are not written into state building codes. The U.S. government does not review plans to ensure compliance, and many states do not have enforcement power, he said.

However, “it costs much more to go back and retrofit a facility than it does to ensure compliance.”

One plaintiff in the suit, Jim Keskeny of Pinckney, claims he’s had issues with Northwest Airlines staff in addition to trouble navigating Metro Airport.

Keskeny said Tuesday he was relieved by the audit’s findings.

“I’m awfully rewarded, fulfilled, and pleased to know all of the things I was griping about are real problems,” he said.