• December 17th, 2018

Improvements in Air Travel are on the Horizon for People with Disabilities

By Heather Ansley, associate executive director of government relations, Paralyzed Veterans of America

Changes to the air travel experience of people with disabilities are on the horizon following the signing of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Reauthorization Act of 2018 in October. The FAA Reauthorization included several provisions explicitly targeted at improving the air travel process, including security screening, for passengers with disabilities. PVA worked with many stakeholders to ensure that the needs of passengers with disabilities were included in the final bill.

A number of the provisions included in the FAA Reauthorization were similar to those included in the Air Carrier Access Amendments Act (ACAAA) (H.R. 5004/S. 1318). The ACAAA was introduced in the Senate in June 2017 by Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) and in the House in February by Representative Jim Langevin (D-RI). Specific provisions in the FAA Reauthorization include:

  • A study of airport accessibility and airline training policies, including any best practices that go beyond the requirements of current civil rights laws.
  • A determination of whether in-cabin wheelchair restraint systems to allow passengers to fly while seated in their wheelchairs are feasible.
  • A requirement for the Department of Transportation (DOT) to work with stakeholders to develop an airline passengers with disabilities bill of rights.
  • An increase in the civil penalties that may be assessed by DOT for violations of the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) that result in injury to a passenger with a disability or damage to a passenger’s wheelchair or other mobility aid.
  • A requirement for DOT to establish an advisory council on the air travel needs of passengers with disabilities. This committee will advise the Secretary of Transportation on air travel issues impacting people with disabilities. In addition, the Advisory Committee will be responsible for reviewing regulations governing ticketing, pre-flight seating assignments, and stowage of assistive devices.
  • A review of the regulations ensuring assistance for passengers with disabilities, including a requirement that airline personnel and contractors who are providing personal assistance to passengers receive, as deemed appropriate, hands-on training about the proper use of aisle chairs or other relevant equipment.
  • A requirement for DOT to move forward in implementing reporting by large domestic airlines on the number of wheelchairs and scooters enplaned and subsequently damaged.

In addition, the FAA Reauthorization includes provisions aimed at modernizing the Transportation Security Agency (TSA). Specifically, the FAA Reauthorization requires TSA to consult with disability and veterans organizations to revise the training requirements for their Transportation Security Officers on screening passengers with disabilities. TSA also has enhanced reporting requirements on issues such as the wait times for same gendered assistance to complete the screening process for passengers with disabilities.

Since the passage of the legislation, DOT has already acted to address the requirement to move forward on reporting requirements related to wheelchairs and scooters carried on domestic flights. On October 23, DOT announced that it was requiring airlines to submit data regarding mishandled wheelchairs and scooters for the period of December 4 through December 31. Large domestic airlines will need to provide that data to DOT by January 15, 2019. PVA sued DOT in July 2017 following their decision to delay the reporting requirement to January 2019. We are pleased that the requirement will be in place for the busy holiday travel season.

Access to safe and efficient air travel for people with disabilities is a necessity of ensuring access to employment, health care, and time with family and friends. PVA will work with DOT and TSA to ensure that the provisions in the FAA are appropriately implemented. In addition, we will continue to work with Congress to advocate for important provisions included in the ACAAA that were not included in the FAA Reauthorization. Specifically, we remain concerned that the enforcement of the ACAA is limited to DOT’s complaint process. We strongly believe that passengers with disabilities should have access to the courts if their civil rights are violated in air travel due to their disabilities. We also support changes that would improve access to aircraft for people with disabilities similarly to the access that is provided in other modes of transportation such as trains and buses.

In addition, PVA will also continue to work with the airlines and wheelchair manufacturers to reduce damage to wheelchairs and other mobility devices in air travel. Since November 2017, PVA has served as a member of the RESNA Standards Committee for Assistive Technology for Air Travel. Through the committee, PVA is working with airlines, wheelchair manufacturers, and other disability organizations to create air travel standards and guidelines for mobility devices, to include design, labeling, information cards, and airport personnel handling and training procedures.

By working with Congress, the Administration, the courts, and the airlines we believe that the air travel experiences of people with disabilities will improve. Passage of the FAA Reauthorization Act and the disability-specific provisions included in that legislation represent an important step in equality for passengers with disabilities in air travel. PVA will continue the fight until having a disability no longer means encountering barriers in flying.

For more information on our advocacy efforts for accessibility in travel, and valuable resources, please visit www.pva.org/travel.

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