The Air Carrier Access Act, signed into law in 1986, led to the implementation of regulations designed to ensure equal access in air travel. While the U.S. Department of Transportation has a poor track record of enforcement, the law is the reason that I have been able to travel in spite of my disability. Together with the Americans with Disabilities Act, the ACAA positively impacts my life as a wheelchair travel blogger and person with a disability.
Civil rights in America are important. The ACAA, like other civil rights laws, is designed to protect the American ideal - that all people are equal and possess a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. When a person with a disability encounters any violation of their civil rights, they are left to feel unequal, unimportant and undervalued. It is the weight of those feelings in myself that has led me to take such a strong stance against discrimination on the basis of disability, wherever it exists - including in the air travel industry.
After taking more than 500 flights as a wheelchair user, I have uncovered a pattern of discriminatory civil rights abuses by airlines which have negatively affected my air travel experience.
The three most common violations of the law, based on my own experience, could be easily corrected if the Department of Transportation would enforce the law without hesitation. These violations are:
Denial of Preboarding
Preboarding offers travelers with disabilities the opportunity to board and get situated on the aircraft with dignity, free of the dangers posed by a rushed process and from the discomfort caused by an airplane full of spectators. Although travelers cannot be required to board first, they are guaranteed the right to board before able-bodied passengers on every flight.
§382.97 leaves no question as to this right:
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.
More often than not, the airline's (or airport's) wheelchair assistance contractors are not at the gate prior to the start of boarding, thereby making preboarding impossible. And, even when the assistance staff do arrive on-time, gate agents routinely send first and business class passengers down the jet bridge before I have boarded the plane.
If a disabled passenger has requested assistance, arrived to the gate prior to boarding and asked to preboard, allowing a single able-bodied passenger onboard first (except airline crew, staff, federal air marshals, airport personnel or companions of other disabled passengers) constitutes a refusal of this right. I also believe that a violation of this provision has occurred when a line of passengers are standing in the jet bridge as spectators, disrupting the preboarding process.
Failure to Return Gate-checked Mobility Equipment
Per §382.125, airlines are obliged to allow for the gate-checking of wheelchairs and other mobility equipment. They must:
...provide for the checking and timely return of passengers' wheelchairs, other mobility aids, and other assistive devices as close as possible to the door of the aircraft, so that passengers may use their own equipment to the extent possible...
This means that wheelchair users must be permitted to remain in their own wheelchair to the door of the aircraft, whether that aircraft is connected to a jet bridge or parked at a remote gate on the ramp.
Airlines must also return the wheelchair to you promptly at your arrival (or connecting) airport. While no definite time limit on this exists, the DOT has repeatedly ruled that a wait of more than 30 minutes is unacceptable. To ensure a speedy return, §382.125 also states:
In order to achieve the timely return of wheelchairs, you must ensure that passengers' wheelchairs, other mobility aids, and other assistive devices are among the first items retrieved from the baggage compartment.
This means that, if you look out your window and see 100 pieces of luggage removed before your wheelchair, the airline has not prioritized the return of the chair and is in violation. This happens frequently, and my wheelchair often remains in the cargo hold for 20 minutes or more after arrival.
Further, the law requires that your wheelchair be returned as close as possible to the aircraft door. Gate agents will often insist that you wait for your personal wheelchair in the terminal, so as to allow them to board the next group of passengers onto the aircraft. Remember, a delay in the return of your wheelchair is always the airline's fault, often a violation, and you are under no obligation to forfeit your right to receive a personal wheelchair in the jet bridge. It is my belief that U.S. carriers will continue to fail in meeting the timely return requirement until they invest in AmbuLift high loaders at major airports.
Failure to Provide Individual Safety Briefing
If you're not a little uneasy about what happens to wheelchair users in an airplane evacuation, you probably should be. If, like me, you cannot walk, you're at the mercy of others to assist you off the aircraft.
In drafting aviation regulations, the DOT and FAA anticipated some of these concerns. See §121.571, a regulation relating to air travel safety announcements and briefings:
(3) Except as provided in paragraph (a)(4) of this section, before each takeoff a required crew member assigned to the flight shall conduct an individual briefing of each person who may need the assistance of another person to move expeditiously to an exit in the event of an emergency. In the briefing the required crewmember shall -
(i) Brief the person and his attendant, if any, on the routes to each appropriate exit and on the most appropriate time to begin moving to an exit in the event of an emergency; and
(ii) Inquire of the person and his attendant, if any, as to the most appropriate manner of assisting the person so as to prevent pain and further injury.
I can count on one hand the number of times I have received the briefing mandated by this part. That is after hundreds of flights - perhaps the largest sample size of anyone in America.
The purpose of the individual safety briefing is to give the passenger an opportunity to explain their needs to the person or persons who will be responsible for assisting in their evacuation. The fact that these briefings are so rare - almost nonexistent - means that a disaster is just waiting to happen. Uncomfortable as it may be, you should not hesitate to ring the flight attendant call bell and offer up this information to the cabin crew yourself. While emergency evacuations are exceedingly rare in air travel, your life could depend on the crew knowing how to assist you.
Compliance is easy, but it won't come easily.
The regulations which exist to serve the Air Carrier Access Act don't require airlines to move mountains. They're simple, common-sense provisions that eliminate barriers in air travel for people with disabilities. But, many of the regulations - like the three discussed here - won't benefit the wheelchair travel community until airlines make necessary investments in personnel, training, technology, equipment and leadership.
Such investments are unlikely to be made until the Department of Transportation enforces every violation with the maximum fine, or until it becomes too much of a public relations nightmare not to do so. Sadly, I don't think either of those realities are close at hand.