The iconic Boeing 747, referred to by many as the “Queen of the Skies,” has flown her last scheduled passenger flight for a U.S. carrier, Delta Air Lines. While aviation geeks everywhere are sad to see the aircraft retired, wheelchair travelers should be happy to see Delta’s Boeing 747 fleet sent to a graveyard in the Arizona desert.
No doubt, Boeing’s double-decker aircraft is stylish and exhilarating to fly (particularly in the forward-looking Seat 1A). But the problem for travelers with disabilities was the lack of an accessible lavatory on Delta’s complement of 747s.
My first experience with a Delta Boeing 747 (N667US) was on a long-haul flight from Seattle to Tokyo-Narita in 2016. Given that the 747 is a wide-body, dual-aisle aircraft, I expected access to a lavatory (using the onboard aisle chair) during the journey of just under 11 hours. Unfortunately, the flight crew told me midflight that there was no accessible bathroom onboard.
Section 382.63 of the Air Carrier Access Act of 1986 requires large airplanes like the Boeing 747 to be equipped with accessible lavatories. So, what happened? When the Department of Transportation drafted the rules for the inclusion of accessible lavatories on wide-body (dual aisle) jets, the regulation applied only to new aircraft. Delta’s Boeing 747 aircraft, acquired in a 2008-2009 merger with Northwest Airlines, were delivered before the ACAA’s effective date and exempt due to a “grandfather” clause. The airline should have made this clear on their website, but chose not to.
In the 1980s, the airline industry fought the ACAA with tooth and nail. It should have been no surprise, then, that an airline would take advantage of a loophole in the law for extra profit. I was still shocked that the teams at Delta and Northwest had made decisions to deny wheelchair users the right to pee on long-haul flights – for nearly 30 years! The post-merger airline has advertised the “Delta Difference” and touts its charitable work for the “Global Good,” but those marketing slogans ring hollow when you’re a person with a disability forced to squirm in your seat somewhere over the Pacific Ocean.
Thankfully, the reign of Delta’s inaccessible Queen of the Skies is over. The monarchy has been dissolved and exiled to the desert. The carrier’s remaining fleet of wide-body airplanes all have accessible lavatories.
For those shopping for an intercontinental flight, have no fear of the 747. Other airlines operating the type around the world have done the right thing for passengers with disabilities – I’ve found accessible lavatories on 747s flown by British Airways, KLM, Lufthansa and Virgin Atlantic, among others.
Featured image courtesy Delta Air Lines.