Disability advocacy groups are celebrating a new federal law, the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018, which was signed by President Donald Trump on October 5th. The law includes several items that will, in theory, positively impact the air travel experience of people with disabilities. But the story is in what’s missing from the law.

Last year, I issued a call to action to readers in support of the Air Carrier Access Amendments Act. The bill would have forced airlines to change the way they treat customers with disabilities—or face serious consequences. While some components of that legislation were included in the FAA Reauthorization Act, the most important pieces were left out. In a time when air travel is becoming less accessible, dramatic improvements are needed.

Here’s what travelers with disabilities will get out of the FAA Reauthorization Act:

  • The DOT must draft an “Airline Passengers with Disabilities Bill of Rights” that should describe, using “plain language,” the protections and rights afforded to people with disabilities in air travel.
  • The DOT must commission two studies—one to include “a review of air carrier training policies related to properly assisting passengers with disabilities” (within one year) and another to determine “the feasibility of in-cabin wheelchair restraint systems”  (within two years). Reports must follow no more than one year after the studies begin.
  • The maximum civil penalty that may be assessed against an air carrier for “damage to a passenger’s wheelchair or other mobility aid or injury to a passenger with a disability” has been increased to 3 times the previous maximum penalty amount.
  • The DOT must issue a final rule clarifying the definition of a service animal and the requirements for bringing one aboard an aircraft (within 18 months).
  • The DOT must establish an “Advisory Committee on the Air Travel Needs of Passengers with Disabilities” that must be composed of at least 1 representative of each of the following groups: passengers with disabilities, national disability organizations, air carriers, airport operators, contractor service providers, aircraft manufacturers, wheelchair manufacturers and national veterans organizations representing disabled veterans.
  • Airlines must begin reporting data on mishandled wheelchairs stored in the aircraft cargo compartment (within 60 days).
  • The TSA must revise its training requirements for officers with respect to screening disabled passengers (within 180 days).

It is important to note that the forthcoming “Airline Passengers with Disabilities Bill of Rights” will only be a document that outlines the rights you already have. Readers of this website won’t find anything new in the Bill of Rights, and I suspect it will look very similar to the Air Carrier Access Act Summary that I have maintained on this website for several years. The government is finally catching up with me!

The initiatives found in the FAA Reauthorization sound great, but two critical components of the previously filed Air Carrier Access Amendments Act were left out:

  • Enforcement of the ACAA remains with the Department of Transportation. No further jurisdiction was delegated to the Department of Justice.
  • Airline passengers with disabilities were not given a private right of action, and are still prohibited from suing air carriers for violations of their civil rights under the ACAA.

As I have written before, the DOT rarely enforces the Air Carrier Access Act, taking action against carriers only as a result of media backlash. An airline won’t be fined for mistreating disabled passengers unless they crawl off the airplane and take it to CNN. What good is an increased maximum penalty if penalties are never levied?

I am suspicious of the DOT, and believe history suggests that the department is predisposed to ruling against the reasonable interests of travelers with disabilities.

On the newly formed Advisory Committee, which is tasked with submitting regulatory recommendations to Congress, actual passengers and people with disabilities are likely to be outnumbered. The lobbyists of airlines, contractors, airports and aircraft manufacturers (“the aviation industry”) will most certainly pressure the Secretary of Transportation to tilt the balance of power and influence in their favor.

Airlines will exert the greatest pressure against a favorable outcome in the study of wheelchair securement spaces in the aircraft cabin. While such a development would open air travel to an incredible number of passengers with disabilities, it would also strike a blow to profitability. Carriers are busy cramming more seats onto airplanes and shrinking the size of lavatories — Can we reasonably expect them to support an initiative that would place large power wheelchairs in the aircraft cabin?

There are great things in this law, but the lessons of the past make it clear that we must remain vigilant. The DOT and airlines are not on our side.

To read the full text of the law, click here.

Featured image courtesy Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images.

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