By Chris Woodyard
LaVerne Stewart, 75, expected a wheelchair and attendant on hand to help her when she stepped off a Continental Airlines flight in Newark, N.J.
But help never showed up.
''You couldn't find anyone to talk to,'' says her husband, Melrose Stewart, 77, who was with her. ''We were just like animals walking around there.''
The Stewarts' dilemma highlights a repeated complaint among the hundreds of fliers who have responded to USA TODAY's hotline on airline service: Wheelchair service is spotty.
Continental, which has one of the most detailed customer service plans for dealing with the physically challenged, says no disabled person needing help will be left alone more than 30 minutes. But the system is supposed to work so that a wheelchair and attendant are ready and waiting when passengers disembark.
The Stewarts, trying to get home to Fayette City, Pa., waited for a few minutes for the wheelchair on Dec. 22. When it didn't show, they got a lift from the driver of an electric cart.
The driver took the couple closer to the boarding area for Continental Express flights, where they were going to catch their connection, but couldn't take them directly to the gate.
Melrose, a retired steelworker, says it took his wife, who has multiple sclerosis, half an hour to reach the gate. She would walk a little, rest, then walk a little more.
When told of the Stewarts' troubles, Continental spokeswoman Michele Tracey was apologetic.
''It distresses me to hear this happened,'' she says.
Construction in the Newark terminal has made it impossible for carts to make their way to all gates. ''We should have had another cart waiting for them or a wheelchair to take them out to Continental Express,'' she says.
Wheelchair problems aren't confined to Continental.
Daniel Lindsay, whose ability to walk was impaired after a car accident, says he waited 20 minutes for a wheelchair in Pittsburgh on Christmas Day. He says he almost missed his US Airways' connecting flight home to Boston as a result. When he arrived in Boston, he had to wait on the plane for 30 minutes.
Caring for passengers who need wheelchairs is ''standard practice,''
says US Airways spokesman David Castelveter. ''It's something we've been
doing for a long time.''