Flying the friendly skies doesn’t need to be turbulent for people with disabilities.
Area airports and air carriers have taken important steps to make flying more comfortable, due in part to the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), passed in 1986, which prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in air travel.
In July, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) announced
its first bill of rights
for travelers with disabilities. The document, which applies to all flights in the United States, is designed to be a summary meant to help travelers understand and assert their rights under the ACAA.
The bill of rights is a living document that the DOT updates as regulations change. Its most recent version was published in July 2022.
The ACAA’s sway applies to all flights operated by American carriers, and all flights arriving to or departing from the United States by domestic or foreign airlines.
Dignity and respect
The heart of the law prohibits discriminating against passengers with disabilities.
Specifically, the ACAA affords people with disabilities the right to be treated with dignity and respect; the right to receive information about services and aircraft capabilities and limitations; the right to accessible airport facilities; the right to assistance at airports and aircraft; and the right to travel with an assistive device or service animal.
According to the document, airlines may not limit the number of passengers with disabilities on a single flight and airlines may not require notification that a person with a disability is flying.
The only reason a passenger may be excluded from a flight is if it would cause a safety issue for the airplane and its passengers. In that case, the airline must provide written notice explaining the decision to not allow an individual to fly.
Ahead of the ACAA
Still, some area airports say they were ahead of the ACAA before they fell under its lens.
“The Muskegon County Airport has always recognized that convenient air travel is a right for all, even before the passage of the DOT’s passenger bill of rights,” says Kenneth Efting, airport director. “Our facilities are built to ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliance standards. The TSA (Transportation Security Administration) security screening staff are trained to assist those with disabilities, along with the design of the checkpoint itself, to allow for a smooth, respectful experience during the screening process.”
Airline staff also is trained to accommodate those with specialized needs and will assist with ticketing, baggage, and basic assistance boarding and deplaning aircraft, according to Efting.
“Our own airport staff is also mindful of all our guests in keeping outside walkways cleared, maintaining adequate lighting and signage in the terminal, ensuring restrooms and doors remain operational,” says Efting, “or even being available in person or by phone at our offices to provide information for those with sight, hearing, or even technology challenges.”
What’s not always doable is allowing people with disabilities to remain in their own wheelchairs while traveling by air, a choice that is becoming increasingly desired.
“Due to the size and type of aircraft approved for use under its DOT contract, our current air carrier is exempt from some requirements of the Air Carrier Access Act and requires that passengers be capable of getting themselves in/out of aircraft and to/from their seats,” says Efting. “This is due to safety and emergency evacuation procedures. However, the airline will make accommodations to allow for the passenger to travel with their own personal attendant.”
Airlines determine wheelchair policies
Haley Abbas, marketing and communications manager for the Gerald R. Ford International Airport Authority (GRFIAA), affirms it’s up to the discretion of each airline to determine their policies regarding passengers using their own wheelchairs.
“We encourage passengers to contact their airline prior to traveling with questions regarding their wheelchair policies and to make arrangements to support their travel needs,” says Abbas.
She says GRFIAA works closely with the Disability Advocates of Kent County (DAKC) to ensure the airport has an inclusive and accessible space for all who visit the Gerald R. Ford International Airport in Grand Rapids.
“In 2022, DAKC featured the Ford International Airport because of our work implementing accessibility measures that go beyond ADA standards by incorporating universal design practices,” says Abbas, referring to the airport’s video.
“As we open up our newly expanded Concourse A, we plan to introduce additional services for passengers with physical or cognitive disabilities, including a companion care restroom and post-security service animal relief area,” adds Abbas. “These would be in addition to our currently offered services, which include wheelchair assistance, a pre-security service animal relief area, handicapped-accessible parking spaces in all parking lots, and the telecoil looping page system in all public areas within the terminal. We were one of the first airports in the country to offer this service.”
COVID-19 continues to shape airport policy.
“We are currently working through options to make ours as much of a touch-free airport as we can be,” says Craig Williams, airport director for the Kalamazoo/Battle Creek International Airport. “While this initiative was born of the COVID pandemic, its benefits will help make the airport more accessible to people with disabilities.”
Abbas says key tactics to educate and restore confidence in air travel due to COVID are intertwined with the following:
- Reliance on continuous cleaning protocols to disinfect and sanitize high-traffic areas for airport employees, tenants, and guests, including bathrooms, airline kiosks, TSA bins, etc.
- Placement of hand sanitizer stations throughout the terminal, pre- and post-TSA screening.
- Offering personal protection equipment to guests at its Visitor Information Desk.
- Installation of energy-efficient heating, ventilating, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems that improve indoor air quality and temperature comfort.
Additional relevant details about the bill of rights can be found here.
This article is a part of the year-long series Disability Inclusion, exploring the state of West Michigan’s growing disability community. The series is made possible through a partnership with Centers for Independent Living organizations across West Michigan.