Airline accessibility

On October 5,  President Trump signed into law the bipartisan Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act of 2018, which includes a number of key reforms to protect the rights of disabled airline passengers and resolve some of the myriad issues that disabled passengers encounter at the airport and on the airplane.

The bill’s passage comes as United Spinal Association and other national disability rights groups have been actively lobbying the U.S. Congress to strengthen the Air Carrier Access Act, the1986 law that prohibits commercial airlines from discriminating against passengers with disabilities. Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.) took the lead on inserting many of the key components from the Air Carrier Access Amendments Act into the FAA funding bill.

“In order to keep America’s promise of full equality for all, we must break down the barriers that individuals with disabilities and our veterans face when they travel,” said Senator Baldwin, following passage of the bill in both chambers of Congress. “Equal access to air travel ensures individuals with disabilities are able to participate in today’s economy and enjoy their travel opportunities.”

Reforms included in the bill will:

• Increase civil penalties for bodily harm to a passenger with a disability and damage to wheelchairs or other mobility aids.

• Require that the Department of Transportation review, and if necessary, revise regulations ensuring passengers with disabilities receive dignified, timely and effective assistance at airports and on aircraft.

• Create the Advisory Committee on the Air Travel Needs of Passengers with Disabilities to identify barriers to air travel for individuals with disabilities and recommend consumer protection improvements.

• Require that the new Advisory Committee review airline practices for ticketing, preflight seat assignments and stowing of assistive devices, and make recommendations as needed.

• Mandate the DOT develop an Airline Passengers with Disabilities Bill of Rights, in consultation with stakeholders, describing rights of passengers with disabilities and responsibilities of air carriers.

• Study in-cabin wheelchair restraint systems, in coordination with disability advocates, air carriers and aircraft manufacturers.

For disability rights advocates, the inclusion of such broad access reforms in the FAA funding bill, marks an important legislative victory a long time in the making. “It’s a big win,” says Alex Bennewith, vice president, government relations for United Spinal. “These important reforms are now locked in, thanks to the efforts of all the advocates who’ve shared their experiences and the importance of equal access to air travel.”