With airline passenger loads at an all-time high, booking a ticket at the last minute isn’t the best idea — the fare will be high and there might not be any desirable seats left.

Last year, I booked an American Airlines ticket from Boston to Atlanta to speak at the RedCabin Aircraft Cabin Innovation Summit. Due to a series of flight delays and cancellations, American couldn’t get me to Atlanta in time for the conference, so they moved me over to Delta Air Lines. I appreciated the gesture and was happy to have a ticket on the Delta flight, but there was only one seat left: 16C, an economy class aisle seat on an Airbus A321.

Two other passengers with reduced mobility occupied the row: in 16B (the middle seat), a larger passenger with difficulty walking longer distances; and in 16A (the window seat), a young mother traveling with her newborn baby. During the flight, I contemplated the unique situation and thought it might be good to explore my thoughts in an article.

Passengers with reduced mobility come in all shapes and sizes, and might not even have a disability.

Although not everyone in the row qualified as disabled under the law, each of us did have reduced mobility.

As a triple amputee and wheelchair user, I am of course immobile and completely unable to walk. The passenger in 16B was also limited, in this case due to her age and larger size — she walked gingerly and held on to other seats for stability as she made her way down the aisle. The mother in 16C, carrying the infant child in her arms, moved cautiously so as to protect her baby.

Each of us had some form of reduced mobility — mine the most significant of all, of course — but the airplane’s narrow aisle and tightly-packed seats limited all of us in some way.

Is an aisle seat really the appropriate place for non-ambulatory passengers?

After American Airlines endorsed my ticket over to Delta, I had to switch terminals at Boston’s Logan Airport, requiring me to reclear security. I arrived to the gate as the final boarding call was announced and was among the last passengers to board the airplane. As such, there was no opportunity to negotiate a seat swap on the completely full flight and I was taken to my aisle seat, effectively blocking the two other passengers in my row.

Although there are no restrictions on where non-ambulatory passengers can sit on an airplane in the United States (with the exception of the emergency exit row), some European carriers do require wheelchair users to sit in a window seat. The intention is to prevent disabled passengers from trapping others in an evacuation scenario.

Although I personally prefer the window seat — I don’t want to be injured as other passengers crawl over me — I don’t believe in a mandate. While I’m able to access the window seat with little difficulty, that isn’t the case for many other travelers with disabilities. In the interest of equity, disabled people should have their choice of any seat on the airplane (except the exit row), and cabins should be designed to promote ease of access to all rows. That said, given the current layout of aircraft cabin interiors, it is often a safety hazard for totally immobilized passengers to sit in an aisle seat.

The larger passenger in 16B could not climb over me — there simply wasn’t space, and that reality effectively trapped the mother and her baby in the row as well. The three (rather four) of us should not have been seated together in that arrangement — our seating assignments should have been transposed — me in 16A, the larger woman in 16B, and the mother and baby in 16C.

To what extent should airlines be required to provide seating accommodations for disabled passengers?

The Air Carrier Access Act sets certain standards for the types of seating accommodations airlines must provide to disabled passengers. Generally, they are limited to the following:

  1. Carriers must inform passengers who board using an aisle chair which seats have moveable aisle armrests and make such seats and rows available to those passengers.
  2. Carriers must provide adjoining seats to a disabled passenger and their companion free of charge.
  3. Carriers must make bulkhead seats available to disabled passengers traveling with a service animal.
  4. Carriers must provide a bulkhead seat or extra-legroom seat to disabled passengers with a fused or immobilized leg.

Opportunities exist for further regulation in this area. So often, I see immobile passengers taken all the way to the rear of the airplane on an aisle chair — a completely senseless and unnecessary reality laden with risks for the passenger and potential liability for the airline.

Future DOT guidelines should mandate carriers provide passengers boarding using an aisle chair their choice of seat (including extra-legroom seats at the front of the economy class cabin) free of charge. Furthermore, I believe that travelers with significant mobility disabilities should be granted the right to request a window seat up to the moment of boarding, even if that means displacing other passengers. Both of these policy changes would make air travel safer for disabled travelers and, when those travelers choose a window seat over an aisle — air travel becomes safer and more convenient for adjacent passengers as well.

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