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Legislation Aims to Improve Disabled Airline Passengers’ Experience

Airlines have suffered several black eyes over poor treatment of customers in recent years. Episodes that involve the treatment of disabled fliers have cast carriers in an especially bad light.

Legislation passed in October seeks to, if not completely eliminate these incidents, at least standardize the rules for dealing with disabled passengers and to address some of the many issues disabled passengers face.

The FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 was signed into law on Oct. 5. In addition to ensuring continued funding for the Federal Aviation Administration for the next five years, the bill calls for the creation of an Airline Passengers With Disabilities Bill of Rights.

Insensitive at Best

Travelers with disabilities have reported incidents that portray airlines and their employees as insensitive at best, cruel at worst.

  • Emirates airline employees removed an autistic, epileptic teen from a flight in July, despite the fact that his family had received medical clearance for the boy prior to the flight.
  • A family accused Delta Airlines of tying a woman with multiple sclerosis to her wheelchair with a dirty blanket when it could not provide straps normally used to keep travelers in wheelchairs on flights. The woman’s son said the blanket was tied so tight that his mother suffered bruises on her arms, and that a Delta employee swore at them when they complained.
  • Jet2 demanded a boy with multiple sclerosis show proof of his disability before allowing the motorized scooter he uses to be put on board the flight.

Among other things, the creators of the bill are directed to establish protocols for screening passengers with disabilities and to study seating accommodations for travelers who use wheelchairs.

Also included is a spring 2020 deadline for the DOT to issue regulations for service animals on flights. It’s an attempt to define service animal – one that has been trained to assist a person with disabilities – from the far less regulated “emotional support animal” classification.

Dialogue With Disabled Passengers

An advisory panel including people with disabilities and representatives from disability organizations will be tasked with identifying access issues the disabled encounter as well as how the Department of Transportation is handling them. The bill of rights itself will be developed with representatives from disability organizations and the airline industry.

One directive of the bill of rights order is for clear language, the lack of which has made enforcing regulations already in place difficult.

The Air Carrier Access Act of 1986 prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities by airlines. The broader Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 is aimed at guaranteeing equal access to transportation among its many other directives, but critics such as John Morris, founder of WheelchairTravel.org, say the act’s length and language hinder its enforcement.

“The directives of the ADA are hundreds of pages long,” Morris told Mic. Morris said that some among the audience of his site didn’t even know that airlines were responsible for repairing or replacing wheelchairs if they cause damage to them.

An Opportunity or a Waste of Time

Some observers have expressed optimism about the new legislation.

Heather Ansley of Paralyzed Veterans of America called the act “a very good message to the Department of Transportation and the airline industry that Congress is very concerned about air travel for passengers with disabilities.” Ansley cited “opportunities” provided in the bill for reviewing current regulations, education and getting the DOT “to have regular conversations about passengers with disabilities.”

Carol Tyson of the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund praised the bill of rights portion for including organizations for the disabled in the conversation, saying that it was “incredibly important to have a voice and to have access to people with decision-making capabilities.”

Others were less hopeful.

Janice Lintz, CEO of Hearing Access & Innovations Inc., which consults with businesses on better access for the hearing impaired, dismissed the act as a “waste of time,” for its lack of language addressing enforcement.

“When you don’t have funding and you don’t have compliance, it’s meaningless,” Lintz said.

Lintz also expressed concerns about individuals whose disability may not be apparent.

Wheelchairs are an obvious sign of a disability, Lintz said, “but you can’t always tell who has a visual impairment, a cognitive disability or hearing loss … but the access is just as critical.”

The legislation does include language requiring TSA to revise training it provides employees on screening passengers with disabilities, which will include instruction on dealing with sensitivities to touch, pressure and sound passengers may have.

Lintz did acknowledge the bill as a “great opportunity,” but called for changes to “make it the bill it was meant to be.”

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