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New rules issued for travelers with disabilities

Disabled travelers should find it easier to access airline websites under a new set of rules the government issued on Monday.

Airline website pages which have core travel information and services must be accessible to the disabled within two years, the Department of Transportation said, and all pages on airline websites must within three years be readily available to people with disabilities.

The new regulations also require airline ticket agents to disclose — and offer — web-based discount fares to customers unable to use their sites due to a disability. Airlines already are required to provide equivalent service for consumers who are unable to use inaccessible websites.

Airlines and airports will also have to make accessible to the disabled automated kiosks providing boarding passes and baggage tags, as they purchase new equipment. If no new kiosks are installed, 25 percent of the kiosks currently at each airport location must be accessible within 10 years.

Another new rule gives airlines more flexibility in how they transport manual, folding wheelchairs onboard, making it possible for them to carry up to two wheelchairs in the cabin, the department said. In addition to being able to stow a wheelchair in a closet, airlines will also be allowed to strap a second chair across a row of seats.

Closets also must have signs saying wheelchairs have priority over other baggage.

At the same time, the department announced that it has fined US Airways $1.2 million for failing to provide adequate wheelchair access to passengers in Philadelphia and Charlotte, N.C. It's one of the largest penalties of its kind ever assessed by the agency in a disability case.

Under the department's rules, airlines are required to provide free, prompt wheelchair assistance, upon request, to passengers with disabilities. The department said this includes helping passengers to move between gates and make connections to other flights.

Officials said that US Airways' use of a combination of electric carts and wheelchairs to transport passengers between gates required frequent transfers and led to long delays. Some passengers missed connections because of the delays, or were left unattended for long periods of time.

The department examined some 300 complaints that passengers filed with US Airways and the government relating to alleged hardship incidents in 2011 and 2012 at Philadelphia International Airport and at Charlotte-Douglas International Airport. That was only a sample of the total number of complaints.

US Airways may allocate up to $500,000 of the fine for improvements that go beyond the DOT's requirements, the department said.

The airline said in a statement that it has made "significant improvements" to its disability assistance program since the complaints cited by the transportation department.

"We are investing $2 million per year in continuous enhancements to our technology, staffing and training," US Airways said. "This will build on the success of our recent improvements and ensure that our customers with disabilities have a positive travel experience on our airline."