Airline Accessibility Keeps Us Grounded

In Features, Roving Rose, Travel by Rosemary Musachio

With 75% of the 50 million Americans with disabilities flying each year, air carriers should offer the best services to this lucrative consumer group. The Department of Transportation (DOT) established the Air Carrier Access Rules as a result of Congress passing the Air Carrier Access Act in 1980.

These regulations are supposed to help prevent discrimination against disabled passengers while training airline employees to accommodate them to the best possible capacity. Unfortunately, unless persons file lawsuits against discriminatory airlines, no other way currently exists to enforce these regulations.

Since I’m a wheelchair user who occasionally travels, I have encountered discomfort, discrimination, and embarrassment at airports and on airplanes. One of the DOT regulations states that airlines must have “aisle chairs” to transport passengers with mobility impairments on and off the plane. Beside the chair appearing like something out of a Frankenstein movie, it doesn’t offer a sense of security.

I felt as if I’d fall from it, especially when airport attendants pushed me. The seat is as big as a floor tile and the non-adjustable footrests offer no support for someone who is short-statue. Yet, until airlines create spaces on board for passengers to remain in their own wheelchairs during flights, aisle chairs are the only solution to passenger transfers.

Airline attendants also are required to use aisle chairs to help transport passengers who are unable to walk to the lavatory. According to DOT, airplanes with more than one aisle or more than sixty seats shall have an accessible lavatory where the disabled passenger and a personal assistant have enough room to maneuver. It also shall have grab bars, faucets, and other controls that those with dexterity impairments can use.

The few times that I went to the lavatory were definitely tight fits! Unless one can stand with assistance, entrance with an aisle chair is next to impossible. Thus, I have been compelled to wait until the plane landed to go to the restroom.

Naturally, the DOT Air Carrier Access regulations also cover wheelchairs and other assisting devices. They shall be stored in overhead compartments, taking precedence over all baggage. Larger or motorized wheelchairs can be stored in the cargo area. Ideally, when the plane lands, the chair should be waiting at the door.

But this isn’t always the case.

Sometimes passengers have to wait up to several hours on the plane, being notified later that the airline misplaced their chairs. Not only is this not good publicity, it can put a dent in the air carrier’s pocket. DOT states that liability for a lost or damaged device is its original cost. Considering how much wheelchairs are these days, airlines definitely should be careful with them.

Even though airline officials insist that heightened security policies should not affect passengers with disabilities, the contrary has been shown. If a passenger who has mobility impairment cannot pass through the metal detector, DOT requires that airport security officials check them with hand-held detectors. However, they were apparently unaware of the rule at Dulles International Airport when they forced an elderly lady in a wheelchair to walk through the stationary detector.

Because of tougher security measures, airport officials may dissemble wheelchairs to inspect them. Although they’re required to re-assemble them, sometimes they don’t.

Another issue that the Air Carrier Access rules cover is personal attendants (PA’s). Airlines cannot require disabled passengers to have PA’s accompany them on flights, even if they need help with feeding and going to the bathroom. Exceptions to this regulation are if the passenger is severely mentally disabled, both hearing and visually impaired, or unable to evacuate the plane alone if there’s an emergency. Regarding disabled travelers who only need their PA’s before and after boarding, airport officials shall provide special permits to them during the security check-in process.

Nevertheless, some airports are apparently unaware of this procedure. For example, a wheelchair user who was stranded on the plane for eight hours due to a cancelled flight couldn’t meet her father at the gate because the airport didn’t permit him to wait there.

In addition to passengers who have mobility limitations, the DOT regulations include provisions for those with hearing and vision impairments. One requirement is for airports to provide text telephones (TT) for the hearing and speech impaired. Furthermore, to accommodate the visually impaired, airports shall have the oral equivalent of information systems that use visual words and symbols. For instance, if the flight board shows a cancellation, it should be also announced orally.

Once on the airplane, open caption shall accompany any video presented, especially when it shows safety instructions. Furthermore, DOT allows the blind to bring guide dogs on board provided they have proper certification.

Lastly but most importantly, the DOT Air Carrier Access regulations state that airlines shall train their employees to interact appropriately with passengers who have mobility, hearing, verbal, visual, or mental disabilities. After the training, for example, airline attendants should know to directly address the disabled passenger, not his/her traveling companion.

Since I cannot talk, people, including airline and airport personnel, have often assumed that I could not hear or think either! When they ask questions about me to my mother, she tells them to ask me since I have a college degree.

Airlines have no qualms asking for our money when purchasing a ticket and we should have no qualms expecting and demanding if necessary for the professional courtesy and service that comes with the traveling experience.

If you have any questions or comments about this article email us at or join the Online Forum to discuss this topic.