Flyers with Disabilities Continue to Face Challenges

Frank Gillingham, MD

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. 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.

Here are some thoughts and resources:

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.