Tennessee Riverboat Company
300 Neyland Drive
Knoxville, TN 37902
(865) 522-5941 fax
Office of Technical and Information Services
Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board
1331 F Street NW,
Washington, DC 20004-1111
Ladies and Gentlemen:
Tennessee Riverboat Company, a member of the Passenger Vessel Association, submits these comments regarding your efforts to develop accessibility guidelines for passenger vessels, as published in the Federal Register of November 26, 2004. Please include these comments in the official record of both of your dockets as well as the corresponding U. S. Department of Transportation Docket.
Tennessee Riverboat Company has been offering dinner cruises, sightseeing cruises, private charters, weddings and many other types of cruises in Knoxville Tennessee since 1994. The Star of Knoxville is a 325 passenger paddlewheel boat built in 1980. It has two decks, the bottom deck is enclosed and the top deck is an open air deck. Mike and Tammy Cheek are the owners of Tennessee Riverboat Company and have been in the passenger vessel industry for many years. Mike has been working on riverboats since 1979 and has served as president of Tennessee Riverboat Company since 1994. The Star of Knoxville cruises along the Tennessee River from mile 648.0 to 643.0. Most of our cruises are 1-2 hours long. We are a seasonal business with the majority of our business coming between May and October. We average around 40,000 passengers per year.
During my years with Tennessee Riverboat Company, we have made a very strong effort to make sure we take good care of all our passengers. Our market dictates a lot of repeat business and only good service will bring them back for another cruise. We do have many wheel chair customers ride with us each year, and we do everything we can to make sure they enjoy their cruise. Our crew is trained on how to accommodate a person with a disability, and I can safely say that our customers with disabilities get better service than our other customers.
In 2003 a lady called and asked if we were wheel chair accessible. Our reservations informed them that we are accessible but that we do have limitations being that we are on a boat. Our boarding procedures include lowering the wheel chairs down three steps. Our captain and deckhands perform this and in ten years have never had a problem getting a wheel chair on to the boat. Two weeks later, Tennessee Riverboat Company was sued by Jan English and Access Now out of Florida. Mrs. English claims they have sued other boats and won ever case. They even won a case against Carnival Cruise line. I informed Mrs. English that we did not have the same resources Carnival cruise line had and that we were a very small operation. Mrs. English also sued many other Knoxville establishments claiming she was denied access to all the places. Please see the article in our local newspaper, the Metro Pulse, revenge of the wheelchairs (www.metropulse.com/dir_zine/dir_2003/1303/t_cover.html).
Access Now Inc. has a web page soliciting new customers and states that all of their cases are settled out of court and that you will never have to go to court. I wanted a chance to defend myself in court but the court cost would have been more expensive than to settle with them. It cost Tennessee Riverboat Company almost $20,000 to settle the case. We considered filing for bankruptcy and have been struggling to survive ever since. We have been behind on all of our bills since we had to settle.
The biggest complaint I have with the ADA guidelines is we did not get a chance to make things better before we were sued. Mrs. English claims she was denied access, yet she could not remember the date that she came to the boat, yet we have to pay the price. We need notification if something needs to be fixed, not sued then ask to fix it. We could have very easily closed our business and Knoxville would have been without a riverboat just because someone claimed they were denied access.
Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions regarding how a small business is effected by bogus lawsuits.