This edition of the Reader Mailbag is focused on seating accommodations offered to passengers with disabilities and their companions or carers.

Interior of an airplane.

Every so often, I’ll dip into the mailbag to answer questions about accessible travel from readers just like you. If you have a question you’d like answered, send an e-mail to

The following was sent by Ana, a Wheelchair Travel reader from Madrid, Spain. She was planning a trip from Madrid to Cuba and wrote:

My partner has always traveled in the seat next to mine, they have always been assigned to us that way [by the airline]. On this occasion [a flight from Madrid to Cuba], they tell me that they cannot provide me with assistance on board because they do not have the knowledge and that my companion must take care of it.

They say that my companion must pay for the seat next to mine in order to travel together. Whenever we have traveled [in the past], at the time of check-in they have assigned us the seat next to mine, but in this case I am afraid to wait because it is a longer journey and I would need help for certain activities of daily life.

Ana is concerned about a flight from Europe, which would be covered by European Union Rules for Disabled Airline Passengers, but I suspect that this is a question travelers in the United States and Canada have as well. As such, I’ll discuss the rules that apply to airlines operating in each of these world regions.

Seating Accommodations for Airline Passengers with Disabilities in the United States

John seated next to his sister on an airplane.
John seated next to his sister on an airplane.

The Air Carrier Access Act lays out a series of rights and protections for disabled passengers taking flights to, from and within the United States. Subpart F, Section 382.81 of the regulation outlines 4 circumstances when airlines are required to provide an adjoining seat for a person assisting a disabled passenger:

  1. When a passenger with a disability is traveling with a personal care attendant who will be performing a function for the individual during the flight that airline personnel are not required to perform (e.g., assistance with eating);
  2. When a passenger with a vision impairment is traveling with a reader/assistant who will be performing functions for the individual during the flight; 
  3. When a passenger with a hearing impairment is traveling with an interpreter who will be performing functions for the individual during the flight; or 
  4. When you require a passenger to travel with a safety assistant (see § 382.29).

Nearly all passengers with disabilities can positively claim that their traveling companion will perform at least one function that a flight attendant is not required to do. Some examples include: drinking, eating, taking medicine, toileting, dressing, and repositioning.

After booking, notify the airline of your accessibility need and request a seating accommodation. The airline cannot require either ticketed passenger to pay for adjacent seats, however they are not required to provide access to any specific seats that you are not otherwise qualified for.

Seating Accommodations for Airline Passengers with Disabilities in Canada

Canada has one of the world’s most progressive accessibility regulations with respect to seating for companions of disabled air travelers. So progressive, in fact, that carers are in many cases entitled to a free domestic airline ticket. In 2019, I wrote about the Canadian court that ruled personal care attendants must fly free. Give it a read.

Air Canada airplanes at airport in winter.

The rule in question is found in Canada’s Accessible Transportation for Persons with Disabilities Regulations (ATPDR). It reads:

Carriers, with the exception of ferries that do not offer assigned seating, must provide additional adjacent seats, meaning seats which are next to the seat of the passenger with a disability in three situations:

    1. When a passenger with a disability travels with a support person who:
      • provides assistance to them during travel — i.e., after departure and before arrival — with the following:
        • eating meals (e.g., hand-feeding), taking medication or using the washroom;
        • transferring to and from a passenger seat where the passenger cannot assist onboard crew with their transfer (note: transfer assistance before departure and after arrival is provided by carrier personnel who are specifically trained to do this without assistance from either the passenger or their support person);
        • orientation or communication; or
        • responding to an emergency, including an evacuation or decompression (note: the assistance is of a physical nature, as opposed to, for example, explaining instructions given by carrier personnel);
    2. When the size of a passenger’s service dog is such that the passenger’s seat does not provide sufficient floor space for the dog to lie down at the passenger’s feet in a manner that ensures the safety and well-being of the dog and the passenger; or
    3. When a person with a disability needs more than one seat because of the nature of their disability. Additional seats may be required by persons who, for example, have a fused leg or who are disabled by severe obesity.

Each of these circumstances are subject to Canada’s “One Person, One Fare” policy. For domestic travel within Canada, carriers are forbidden from charging any additional fare or fees to secure an adjacent seat for a qualified individual. Passengers should provide as much advance notice as possible to take advantage of this unique benefit.

For international travel, carriers are required to provide adjacent seating to accommodate a disabled person or carer, but they are permitted to collect airfare for the additional seat.

Seating Accommodations for Airline Passengers with Disabilities in Europe

Ana had booked a flight from Europe, which meant European Union regulations applied to her journey. Like in the United States and Canada, airlines are prohibited from assessing a fee to seat disabled passengers next to a companion who will assist with various activities of daily living.

KLM 787 Economy Class Cabin

The European Parliament established a set of rights that apply to disabled people traveling by air, and they can be found in EC1107/2006. The right to an adjacent seat for a care assistant is outlined in Annex II, which reads:

Where a disabled person or person with reduced mobility is assisted by an accompanying person, the air carrier will make all reasonable efforts to give such person a seat next to the disabled person or person with reduced mobility.

Although there are fewer details provided in the EU regulation, its meaning is apparent: If two adjacent seats are available, they should be made available to a disabled flyer and his/her companion.

Traveling with multiple companions or carers

Qualifying companions are referred to in the singular, as a “personal care attendant” in the U.S., a “support person” in Canada, and an “accompanying person” in Europe. This suggests that the rules permitting fee-free seating accommodations apply only to the disabled person and one companion. While airlines should use a charitable degree of discretion in seating disabled passengers together with their party, passengers should only count on one adjacent seat being provided free of charge.

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