People with disabilities continue to encounter problems while flying, and PVA remains dedicated to improving their air travel experience
By PVA National Staff
Access to air travel is the primary complaint from Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) members and others with disabilities. Despite the passage of the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) in 1986, people with disabilities often encounter poorly trained airline personnel and contractors, inaccessible aircraft, problems with broken and damaged wheelchairs and even bodily harm. The ACAA is a civil rights law. However, access in the air travel industry has failed to keep pace with the advances made in other forms of transportation. Not subject to the Americans with Disabilities Act, airplanes don’t include many of the accessibility features that some of us might take for granted in city buses, subways and trains. During the 31st anniversary of the ACAA in 2017, PVA launched a survey on the air travel experiences of passengers with disabilities. Questions addressed a wide variety of issues, including damage to wheelchairs, service animals and seating assignments.
Telling Survey Answers
One of the most telling set of answers in the survey was to the question: How many times have you flown commercially in the last five years? The following are a sample of responses from people who answered that they haven’t flown during that period:
“I cannot risk them breaking my wheelchair.”
“Heard many horror stories of air travel with a wheelchair.”
“I always end up with pressure or skin issues.”
These people who aren’t flying out of fear or because of bad past experiences represent missed family vacations and business trips and lost customers for the airlines. PVA has been diligently advocating for improvements to the air travel process for all people with disabilities. Spurred by the need to make changes in light of these problems, PVA has worked to harness the power of the disability and veterans communities to gather air travel stories and work with Capitol Hill, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) and the airlines to improve the treatment of all passengers with disabilities.
One of PVA’s first steps was to begin collecting stories from people with disabilities about their air travel experiences. The website airaccess30.org was developed in honor of the 30th anniversary of the ACAA to assist in raising awareness about the law, showcase progress to date and highlight additional steps that need to be taken to improve access. The stories relay both the positive and negative experiences of travelers with disabilities. The site launched in 2016 with three stories and was endorsed by seven other disability organizations. Since then, the site has grown to more than 80 stories and endorsements from 14 organizations. These stories have proven crucial to illustrating areas where reforms are needed to improve the air travel experience. A story posted by PVA National Secretary Larry Dodson describes the incidents surrounding a flight last fall from Albuquerque, N.M., to Atlanta as “awkward,” “embarrassing” and “exhausting.” Members of Congress and other policymakers need to know about these experiences.
Getting On & Off
When talking with these leaders, PVA describes the process its members and others with disabilities endure to participate in air travel. These methods include being required to transfer from a personal wheelchair into an aisle chair, possibly with the assistance of ill-trained airline or contract staff; being pulled backwards into the aircraft to reach the assigned seat; and being transferred again. Once the wheelchair user is on board, other passengers may be required to climb over him or her to reach their seat. If the flight is using a single-aisle aircraft, the lavatory will most likely be inaccessible. Upon arrival at a destination, the boarding process is reversed, but instead of deplaning first, people with disabilities will most likely deplane last. The process, even if it works well, can be physically demanding. When it doesn’t work well, it can mean being dropped, bruises, broken bones or worse. Travelers with disabilities who encounter disability-related problems in air travel may file complaints with the airline and the DOT. In 2017, the DOT released the latest figures on complaints filed directly with airlines.
In 2016, passengers filed 32,445 disability-related complaints as reported by 184 domestic and foreign air carriers, which represents nearly a 5% increase over 2015. Top complaints with U.S. carriers for passengers with paraplegia or quadriplegia include failure to provide assistance and seating accommodation. In 2016, passengers filed 862 disability-related complaints directly with the DOT. Although the DOT must investigate every complaint filed with it, even if the airline is found to be at fault, enforcement is limited to administrative action and civil fines. Unlike most civil rights laws, the ACAA lacks a guaranteed private right of action. Consequently, people with disabilities typically receive little, if any, redress to their specific grievances. Efforts are being made to try and improve the air travel experience for people with disabilities, including new legislation that would offer support and some changes to the ACAA.
As a direct response to PVA’s advocacy, Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) introduced S.1318, the Air Carrier Access Amendments Act (ACAAA), in June 2017. This legislation would make needed improvements to the ACAA and provide increased opportunities for stakeholders to work with airlines and the DOT to improve the air travel experience for passengers with disabilities. Specifically, it would strengthen ACAA enforcement, ensure increased access to aircraft, improve training for air carrier personnel and their contractors, require the secretary of transportation to work with stakeholders to develop an Airline Passengers with Disabilities Bill of Rights and create a U.S. Department of Transportation Advisory Committee on the Air Travel Needs of Passengers with Disabilities.
PVA’s efforts have led to the inclusion of disability-related provisions in the House and Senate versions of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Reauthorization bills currently pending on Capitol Hill. Many of these provisions are similar to those found in the PVA-supported ACAAA. The bipartisan support for these provisions provides hope that change may be coming. In addition to PVA’s advocacy on Capitol Hill, it has also worked extensively with the DOT on improvements.
In 2016, PVA served on the DOT’s Access Advisory Committee on Accessible Air Transportation, which was tasked with negotiating a rule on access to lavatories on single-aisle aircraft and service animals. The organization also worked with the DOT to develop training materials for airlines and educational materials for passengers with disabilities on the top areas of disability complaint. Following these efforts, PVA has continued to meet with DOT officials on a regular basis to discuss current air travel problems and seek resolutions. However, PVA was forced to pursue legal action in response to the DOT’s delay of a rule that would require airlines to provide information on the total number of wheelchairs and scooters they enplane and subsequently “mishandle” on a monthly basis. PVA believes the DOT erred in delaying the rule’s implementation by failing to provide members of the public with an opportunity to comment on the delay. As of press time in early April, the case is pending in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
Finally, PVA has increased its efforts to work directly with the airlines. In November 2017, it hosted the first meeting of the Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America (RESNA) Standards Committee on Air Travel. The goal of the committee is to create air travel standards and guidelines for mobility devices, including design, labeling, information cards and airport personnel handling and training procedures. RESNA is a standards developing organization accredited by the American National Standards Institute. PVA is an official committee member and works closely with its leadership. Moving forward, the committee and its groups will meet on a regular basis to work toward developing voluntary standards aimed at reducing damage to wheelchairs in air travel. Airlines, wheelchair manufacturers, members of the disability community and other key stakeholders are also part of this effort.
PVA remains a strong force in advocating for improved access to air travel for passengers with disabilities. It’ll continue to work with members of Congress, the DOT and the airlines to ensure progress. The advocacy of PVA members and all people with disabilities is critical to ensuring these efforts are ultimately successful.