What Airlines Won't Tell You About Preboarding for Disabled Passengers

Last month, I pointed out disabled passengers' right to preboarding as one of the 3 Most Violated Accessibility Rules in Air Travel.  While 14 CFR §382.93 establishes a right to preboarding, many questions are left as to what the term actually means:

As a carrier, you must offer preboarding to passengers with a disability who self-identify at the gate as needing additional time or assistance to board, stow accessibility equipment, or be seated.

Thankfully, in a March 2013 notice to airlines, the Department of Transportation clarified several important points and provided a clear definition of what constitutes preboarding and compliance with the law. After more than 500 flights as a wheelchair user, it has become clear to me that airlines have ignored this notice, and many of us encounter a preboarding violation on every flight. After reading this article, you'll see that your preboarding rights have been violated, even if you didn't realize it before.

So, what is preboarding?

The true meaning of specific sections of the Air Carrier Access Act is determined by the DOT's Aviation Consumer Protection Division, who is responsible for enforcement of the act. In the notice to airlines linked above, air carriers were advised that:

It is the Enforcement Office’s view that section 382.93 requires carriers to board passengers with disabilities who self- identify at the gate as needing to preboard for one of the listed reasons to board the plane before all other passengers, including first class passengers, elite-level passengers, members of the military, passengers with small children, etc. The purpose of section 382.93 is to afford passengers with disabilities who are entitled to preboard enough time and space to board, stow their accessibility equipment, or be seated safely.

Let me draw your attention to the fact that passengers with disabilities who request preboarding must be allowed to "board the plane before all other passengers." Airlines often include families with young children in the preboarding group, but this is a clear violation of the law. Since I cannot recall the last time I did not board with or after parents and children/babies, it is safe to assume that this rule is violated in a consistent manner.

A multitude of issues bring about the denial of preboarding

As I wrote in my article last month on frequent ACAA violations, preboarding is not offered for a number of reasons. Most common, of course, are the wheelchair assistance contractors not being in place by the start of boarding. While the airline will always opt to push the blame off onto their contractor, I find it is frequently the result of the carrier overextending its contracted staff, or gate agents who fail to call for assistance until the last moment.

In other cases, gate agents will send first and business class passengers down the jet bridge before the passenger with a disability has boarded. If you're still getting situated in the aisle chair, these passengers will either gawk at you from up close, or walk around you to board the aircraft.

The DOT has stated that the purpose of the regulation is to "afford passengers with disabilities who are entitled to preboard enough time and space to board, stow their accessibility equipment, or be seated safely." In any case where you are rushed, made to feel uncomfortable (unsafe) as a result of onlookers, or skipped in the boarding lane by able-bodied passengers, your right to preboard has been denied.

Watch out for these sneaky violations

While airlines may wish to usher elected officials or Hollywood celebrities on the plane before everyone else, remember that they are just passengers - due no special rights by aviation law. So if that Grammy or Oscar winner is allowed to board before you, the law has been violated. Regardless of how much money that celebrity passenger paid the airline.

Some carriers will also grant preboarding to top tier elite members. American Airlines frequently boards members of their "secret" Concierge Key program before those eligible for preboarding. This is a violation. While it hasn't happened to me yet as a very frequent traveler on American Airlines, I expect it to happen any day. [UPDATE: On 7/25/2017, it happened - in Philadelphia. AA denies any wrongdoing, but I have forwarded the matter to the DOT.]

Cover your bases - request preboarding!

The law requires passengers who wish to pre board the aircraft to notify the gate agent managing their flight. So, even if you have requested wheelchair assistance, you should also speak with the gate agent once you have arrived. Try to be at your gate 15 minutes before boarding begins, which is typically 30 to 40 minutes before scheduled departure.

Were you denied preboarding? Report your airline to the DOT!

If you have fulfilled your requirements under the law and are denied preboarding, do yourself (and the millions of other travelers with disabilities) a favor by reporting the violation to the Department of Transportation. It is the only way that the government will know just how widespread the abuse of our community's rights actually is.

For more information on filing an air travel disability complaint with the DOT, click here.

 

What have your experiences been with preboarding?
Have your rights been violated? How so?
Let us know in the comments below!

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