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Flyers with Disabilities Continue to Face Challenges
-- By Frank Gillingham, M.D.

In 1986 the U.S. Congress passed the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) in response to the miserable service many airlines extended to air-travelers with disabilities. Fourteen years later most observers agree that while progress has been made there is much room for improvement. Business travelers with disabilities, who often have to take last minute trips and change their plans frequently for business reasons, continue to find air travel particularly challenging.

The ACAA and its Rules

The ACAA empowered the Department of Transportation to create regulations that would eliminate discrimination against people with disabilities by the U.S.-based airlines and other companies who provide service for the airlines. These regulations are known as the Air Carrier Access Rules.

The rules are meant to ensure that airplanes and airports are accessible and new facilities and planes that are under construction become truly usable. To summarize the most important provisions of the rules, carriers may not refuse transportation to a passenger solely on the basis of a disability. They may not limit the number of individuals with disabilities on a particular flight. They must provide disabled passengers with all flight information available to other passengers (e.g. hearing impaired passengers must receive the notifications that are broadcast overhead). And they must accommodate services animals such as guide dogs.

As you can imagine (given the lobbying power of the airline industry) there are significant exceptions. Carriers may refuse to transport an individual with a disability if doing so would violate FAA rules or endanger other passengers. On small commuter-type planes (<30 seats) carriers can refuse transportation if certain equipment isn't immediately available. Under certain circumstances airlines can require that a disabled traveler be accompanied by a companion (e.g., if the traveler requires assistance to evacuate the plane) but they can't charge for the companion's transportation.

Importantly, carriers are not required to provide supplemental (medical) oxygen or respirator hook-ups, nor are they required to carry travelers in incubators or on stretchers. If they choose to provide these services (which many airlines do--call to check) they can require 48 hour advance notification, one hour check-in, and they can charge extra.

Are we making progress?

In many ways traveling with a disability has become easier since the ACAA was passed. But there are still significant numbers of problems and unfortunately it appears from the U.S. Department of Transportation's (DOT) monthly Air Travel Consumer report (www.dot.gov/airconsumer), which tracks all complaints against airlines, that the situation in 2000 has worsened slightly relative to 1999. (The DOT has been tracking complaints from travelers with disabilities for many years, but only in August, 1999 did they begin reporting these complaints as a separate category within the monthly report).

The most recent report, published in November, summarizes data from January, 2000 through September, 2000. There were 471 civil rights complaints from flyers with disabilities, out of a total of 16,845 complaints (2.8%). During the same period a year earlier (January, 1999 through September, 1999) there were 349 complaints from disabled travelers out of a total of 13,409 complaints (2.6%).

How did the major airlines do? United (85 complaints); Delta (66); American (63); Northwest (53); US Airways (51); TWA (33); Continental (31); Southwest (14). Basically, the results seem to track how an airline did with general consumer complaints. United was one of the worst ranked airline during this period (5.86 per 100,000 enplanements) while Southwest was the best (.52 complaints per 100,000 enplanements).

The National Council on Disability studied DOT complaints filed between 1993 and 1996 and found the most common complaint was delayed wheelchairs and lack of onboard chairs. The 2nd and 3rd most common complaints: inadequate assistance from customer-service agents and seating problems.

Apparently some airlines (Delta, Northwest and American) are asking disabled travelers to help them improve by forming advisory boards so we can look forward to that. In addition, the SATH website reports that they are serving on a committee that it specifically studying the business travel for the disabled--but no further details are provided.

Here are some additional thoughts, and some additional resources:

  • Study the rules. Bring a copy or synopsis of the rules with you to gently remind the recalcitrant airline representative. The United Spinal Association (formerly known as the Eastern Paralyzed Veterans Association) (www.unitedspinal.org) provides a free Pocket Card explaining the highlights of the ACAA and its rules. Call 1-800-444-0120. Their Website also provides a succinct summary the ACAA's provisions. (http://www.unitedspinal.org/pages.php).
  • Give the airline as much advanced notice as possible. The regulations allow sufficient wiggle room for the airline so it's a good idea to notify them of your needs at the time you book your ticket. Ask the customer service rep to enter the information in the record of your tickets. To verify, call back the toll-free number later and ask the rep (undoubtedly you'll reach a different one) to read them back to you.
  • Arrive early if possible and take advantage of the early boarding (but remember that the ACAA prevents the airline from requiring that you do so). In theory onboard closets must be used for wheel chairs in favor of first class overcoats and garment bags, but in practice this rule works much better if the wheelchair is in place before the coats.
  • Complain if you need to. If you're at the airport and you're not getting what you need, ask to speak with the Complaint Resolution Official (CRO). Airlines are required to have one available immediately upon request. After the fact, write the airline president--copy your Congressman and Senator--these "cc's" get noticed. And make sure to register your complaint with the DOT (http://www.dot.gov). They won't help you resolve the matter but they will include it in their monthly report. Airlines definitely pay attention to these reports.
  • International Travel is more difficult. You will have to plan even more rigorously because the ACAA applies only to US based carriers. One common problem that disabled travelers encounter in other countries is that jetbridges aren't as common, even in the Caribbean.

Additional Resources.

The web is a wealth of information--here are some of the sites that impressed me. Many of them have their own links pages and include information about travel agents that specialize in travel and tours for individuals with disabilities.

  • The Society for the Advancement of Travel for the Handicapped (www.sath.org) is a non-profit educational organization that has represented travelers with disabilities since 1976. They perform critical advocacy, offer a variety of member services and offer excellent, concise content on traveling with disabilities.
  • The US Department of Transportation offers summary of the ACAA and a detailed description of the rules (http://www.dot.gov). The DOT's Office of the Inspector General is conducting an online survey that they will use to report to congress at the end of 2000 regarding how well the airlines are accommodating the needs of disabled and special needs travelers. To report an incident using an online form go to: http://dynamic.tasc.dot.gov/oigsurvey/specialneeds.cfm
  • As noted above the United Spinal site (www.unitedspinal.org) contains a succinct summary of the ACAA's provision www.unitedspinal.org/pages.php and a wealth of resources.
  • U.S. Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board is a federal agency committed to accessible design for people with disabilities. (www.access-board.gov). 1-800-USA-ABLE (1-800-872-2253; voice/TTY).
  • The Spinal Cord injury information network (www.spinalcord.uab.edu) has a wealth of useful links. Click on "Index A-Z", select "T" then select "Travel."