Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Disabled Travellers and Flying

This is the second in an ongoing series of articles by Candy Harrington, examining travel issues as they relate to people with disabilities, particularly in the United States. If you haven’t done so, you may also like to read, Debunking Myths About Accessible Travel.

According to a 2005 study by the Open Doors Organization of Chicago, 84% of disabled travellers said they encountered obstacles when flying; while 82% reported access problems at airports.

Candy Harrington, author of Barrier-Free Travel; A Nuts and Bolts Guide for Wheelers and Slow Walkers, agrees that disabled travellers run into a lot of problems in the air. “I get a fair amount of reader feedback,” says Harrington, “and most of the complaints focus on air travel. Access problems range from deplaning delays and subsequent missed connections, to access obstacles in foreign airports and even cases of denied boarding for disabled passengers.”

For over 20 years, the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) has been he law of the land as far as accessible air travel is concerned; and thanks to periodic updates it has evolved to serve the needs of disabled travellers. The most recent revisions (effective May 13, 2009) serve to strengthen the law even more and offer greater protection to disabled travellers. Harrington points out some of these important changes, which will drastically improve the quality of the air travel experience for disabled travellers.

  • The updated law legally extends coverage of the ACAA to all commercial flights to and from the US, including those operated by foreign air carriers. This means that foreign air carriers can no longer deny boarding to disabled passengers on flights to or from the US.
  • Foreign airlines operating flights to or from the US must also ensure that disabled passengers can move through the terminal facilities at foreign airports.
  • The law was edited to require the “prompt” deplaning of disabled passengers. The Department of Transportation (DOT) further defined prompt as “no later than as soon as the other passengers have deplaned.” This means that disabled passengers will no longer be left on planes well after the flight crew has departed.
  • Employees or contractors providing airport wheelchair assistance are now required to make a brief restroom stop (upon request) if the restroom is located along the path of travel to the gate.
  • The law also requires airlines to allow the on-board use of all FAA-approved portable oxygen concentrators, ventilators, respirators and CPAP machines. The DOT placed the burden of testing these devices on the manufacturers, not the airlines.
  • The updated law specifies the dimensions of the on-board wheelchair storage space as being 13 inches by 36 inches by 42 inches. This eliminates ambiguity and will help passengers determine if their assistive device will fit in the limited priority storage area.
  • If a service animal is unable to fit comfortably at the assigned seat location, the airline must now offer the passenger the opportunity to move to any open seat in the same class, that can safely accommodate the animal.
  • Airline personnel are now required to assist disabled passengers at inaccessible ticket kiosks.
  • Finally, although the new law stopped short of requiring airline websites to be accessible, it requires airlines to offer disabled passengers web-only fares that appear on inaccessible websites, by phone or another accessible reservation method.

Barrier-Free Travel; A Nuts and Bolts Guide for Wheelers and Slow Walkers, is available from your favourite bookstore or at, where Candy also blogs regularly about accessible travel issues.

Image courtesy of Disability Information Website...

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