Once limited to the able-bodied, air travel became a right of all Americans—regardless of physical ability—with the passage of the Air Carrier Access Act in 1986. That law shook the aviation industry, granting wheelchair assistance free of charge and requiring carriers to provide accessible lavatories, aisle chairs, gate-checking of mobility equipment, preferred seat selection and more.
The ACAA was crafted to create accessibility in the airports and airplanes of the 1980s. As the industry has evolved, the Department of Transportation has fallen behind in its regulation and enforcement responsibilities. The airlines have taken advantage.
Although certain groups like the sight- and hearing-impaired have seen significant improvements to access, the mobility-impaired have been left behind. Some might even say that air travel has become less accessible to wheelchair users, especially in the last decade.
Here are three examples of a changing airline industry that leaves people with mobility disabilities in the lurch.
Shrinking seat pitch (leg room)
The size of seats in economy class can have a dramatic effect on passenger comfort and accessibility. Airlines’ efforts to pack more people on airplanes is most visible in the reductions to seat pitch (the space between rows), which impacts the amount of legroom passengers have.
In 1985, United Airlines offered up to 36 inches of seat pitch in economy class. Today, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a seat (on any airline) with more than 33 inches of space. Avoid low-cost carriers Spirit Airlines and Frontier Airlines, or you may be stuck with an industry-worst 28 inches of seat pitch. There might not be much hope at the legacy carriers, either, as American Airlines announced plans to standardize economy class seat pitch at 30 inches earlier this year.
In July, a federal court ordered the FAA to review “the case of the incredible shrinking airline seat” to determine their effect on the safety of passengers.
OK, the seats are small. What’s the accessibility issue? First, safety. Like the court, I have concerns about the ability to safely and rapidly evacuate passengers who are packed like sardines on an airplane. We already know that there is no plan to evacuate passengers with disabilities, but shrinking seats (and increased passenger loads) could make our chances of surviving a crash even less likely.
The second and most common access issue with small seats is simple: space. People who use the aisle chair to board often sit in the aisle seat. As a result of reduced seat pitch, travelers in the middle and window seats have to climb over the immobile passenger to reach their seats. At best, it’s awkward and denies the disabled traveler his/her dignity. At worst, it’s a serious safety issue for everyone involved (especially in a real emergency).
The stolen bulkhead seat
As airlines began to reduce the seat pitch in economy class, they recognized an opportunity to charge extra for seats with additional legroom. These extra legroom seats are called by many names: Comfort+ (Delta), Economy Plus (United), Even More Space (JetBlue) and Main Cabin Extra (American). Travelers are being charged extra for legroom that used to be standard.
Passengers with disabilities, especially those who have difficulty walking, often prefer the first row of economy class. But these first row or bulkhead seats are now included as part of the extra-legroom section of economy class. Need that seat because of your disability? Pay $50.
At Delta Air Lines, Comfort+ is considered a separate class of service from economy and the airline is not legally required to assign bulkhead seats to passengers with disabilities. Other carriers like American Airlines, JetBlue and United do not market extra-legroom seats as a separate class of service, so they must accommodate people with certain disabilities in those seats for free. That said, many readers have reported that airline representatives have refused to reserve these “preferred” seats in advance unless they pay a fee.
Narrow-body airplanes on long-haul routes
With very few exceptions, the ADA requires businesses to provide wheelchair accessible restrooms to customers. But the ADA does not apply to airplanes, and the ACAA rules for lavatory accessibility had airline stock prices in mind, not the needs of disabled travelers. As a result, the wheelchair accessible bathrooms on airplanes are cramped, difficult to use and not big enough for many travelers with severe disabilities.
When the ACAA was crafted, aircraft used on long transcontinental, transatlantic and transpacific routes were wide-body planes with a ton of seats. But today, as engine efficiency has improved and airplane range increased, smaller narrow-body planes are traveling cross-country and across the Atlantic Ocean. The ACAA only requires accessible lavatories to be installed on wide-body (dual aisle) aircraft. If you’re flying on a Boeing 737, Boeing 757, Airbus A320 or Airbus A321, you won’t have access to a wheelchair accessible lavatory. Here are a few routes that I have flown without access to a bathroom:
- New York-JFK to Seattle | 6 hours, 20 minutes | Boeing 757 (Delta Air Lines)
- Miami to Los Angeles | 5 hours, 40 minutes | Airbus A321 (American Airlines)
- New York-JFK to Madrid | 7 hours, 15 minutes | Boeing 757 (American Airlines)
Among U.S. carriers, Delta Air Lines wins the prize for longest route with a narrow-body airplane. Their flight from Raleigh-Durham to Paris, France using a Boeing 757 is a whopping 8 hours, 10 minutes! Assuming you pre-board the aircraft and still require wheelchair assistance on arrival, you’ll have to “hold it” for 9 hours – and that’s a best case scenario.
As airlines invest in more long-range narrow-body aircraft, travelers with disabilities are facing a level of discrimination in bathroom access that hasn’t been seen since the 1950s, when bathrooms were last segregated on the basis of race. Just how bad does the future look? Taken together, American, Delta and United have outstanding orders for hundreds of Airbus A320-series and Boeing 737-series aircraft. It seems clear that disabled passengers will be left squirming in their seats with nowhere to pee for decades to come.
Airline lobbyists fought the Air Carrier Access Act with tooth and nail in 1986, so it is no surprise that the industry has not considered the needs of disabled travelers in plotting a course for the future. The laws regarding accessibility of aircraft must catch up to the times, or people with disabilities will find air travel to be increasingly unfavorable, if not impossible to manage.