Planning Your Trip
At The Airport
Getting On And Off The Plane
On The Plane
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For years, access to the nation's air travel system for persons with disabilities
was an area of substantial dissatisfaction, with both passengers and the airline
industry recognizing the need for major improvement. In 1986 Congress passed the
Air Carrier Access Act, requiring the Department of Transportation (DOT) to develop
new regulations which ensure that persons with disabilities will be treated without
discrimination in a way consistent with the safe carriage of all passengers. These
regulations were published in March 1990.
The DOT regulations, referred to here as the Air Carrier Access rules, represent
a major stride forward in improving air travel for persons with disabilities. The
rules clearly explain the responsibilities of the traveler, the carriers, the airport
operators, and contractors, who collectively make up the system which moves over
one million passengers per day. (These rules do not apply to foreign airlines.)
The Air Carrier Access rules are designed to minimize the special problems that
travelers with disabilities face as they negotiate their way through the nation's
complex air travel system from origin to destination. This is achieved:
This guide is designed to offer travelers with disabilities a brief but authoritative
source of information about the Air Carrier Access rules: the accommodations, facilities,
and services that are now required to be available. It also describes features required
by other regulations designed to make air travel more accessible.
The guide is structured in much the same sequence as a passenger would plan for
a trip: the circumstances he or she must consider prior to traveling, what will
be encountered at the airport, and what to expect in the transitions from airport
to airplane, on the plane, and then airplane to airport.
The New Traveling Environment
THE AIR CARRIER ACCESS RULES SWEEP aside many restrictions that formerly discriminated
against passengers with disabilities:
There are a few execeptions
There are new procedures for resolving disputes:
Travelers with disabilities must be provided information
upon request concerning facilities and services available to them. When feasible
this information will pertain to the specific aircraft scheduled for a specific
flight. Such information includes:
Normally, advance information about the aircraft will be requested by phone. Any
carrier that provides telephone service for the purpose of making reservations or
offering general information must provide comparable services for hearing-impaired
individuals, utilizing telecommunications devices for the deaf (TDDs), or text telephones
(TTs). The TTs shall be available during the same hours that the general public
has access to regular phone service. The response time to answer calls on the TT
line shall also be equivalent to the response time available to the general public.
Charges for the call, if any, shall be the same as charges made to the general public.
Airlines may not require passengers with disabilities to provide advance notice
of their intent to travel or of their disability except as provided below. Nonetheless,
letting the airline know in advance how they can help you will generally result
in a smoother trip.
Carriers may require up to 48 hours advance notice and one hour advance check-in
from a person with a disability who wishes to receive any of the following services:
Carriers are not required to provide the following services or equipment, but should
they choose to provide them, they may require 48 hours advance notice and a one
hour advance check-in:
Where a service is required by the rule, the airline must ensure that it is provided
if appropriate notice has been given and the service requested is available on that
particular flight. If a passenger does not meet advance notice or check-in requirements,
carriers must make a reasonable effort to accommodate the requested service, providing
this does not delay the flight.
If a passenger with a disability provides the required notice but is required to
fly on another carrier (for example, if the flight is cancelled), the original carrier
must, to the maximum extent feasible, provide assistance to the second carrier in
furnishing the accommodation requested by the individual.
It must be recognized that even when a passenger has requested information in advance
on the accessibility features of the scheduled aircraft, carriers sometimes have
to substitute a different aircraft at the last minute for safety, mechanical or
other reasons. It must also be recognized that the substitute aircraft may not be
as fully accessible--a condition that may prevail for a number of years. On-board
wheelchairs must be available on many aircraft, but it will take a number of years
before movable aisle armrests are available on all aircraft with over 30 seats.
Similarly, while accessible lavatories must be built into all new wide-body aircraft,
they will be put into existing aircraft only when such aircraft are undergoing a
major interior refurbishment.
Carriers may require the following individuals to be accompanied by an attendant:
The carrier and the passenger may disagree about the applicability of one of these
criteria. In such cases, the airline can require the passenger to travel with an
attendant, contrary to the passenger's assurances that he or she can travel alone.
However, the carrier cannot charge for the transportation of the attendant.
The airline can choose an attendant in a number of ways. It could designate an-off
duty employee who happened to be traveling on the same flight to act as the attendant.
The carrier or the passenger with a disability could seek a volunteer from among
other passengers on the flight to act as the attendant. The carrier could provide
a free ticket to an attendant of the passenger's choice for that flight segment.
In the end, however, a carrier is not required to find or furnish an attendant.
The attendant would not be required to provide personal service to the passenger
with a disability other than to provide assistance in the event of an emergency
evacuation. This is in contrast to the case of the passenger that usually travels
accompanied by a personal attendant, who would provide the passenger whatever service
he or she requests.
If there is not a seat available on the flight for an attendant, and as a result
a person with a disability holding a confirmed reservation is denied travel on the
flight, the passenger with a disability is eligible for denied boarding compensation.
For purposes of determining whether a seat is available for an attendant, the attendant
shall be deemed to have checked in at the same time as the person with the disability.
UNTIL RECENTLY, ONLY THOSE AIRPORT facilities designed, constructed, or renovated
by or for a recipient of federal funds had to comply with federal accessibility
standards. Even at federally-assisted airports, not all facilities and activities
were required to be accessible. Examples are privately-owned ground transportation
and concessions selling goods or services to the public. (The accessibility features
for over 500 airports are covered in a publication of the Airports Council International
entitled Access Travel: Airports--A Guide to the Accessibility Of Terminals. It
may be obtained by writing the Consumer Information Center, Pueblo, CO 81009.) As
a result of the Air Carrier Access rules, and the Americans with Disabilities Act
of 1990 (ADA) and implementing regulations, these privately-owned facilities must
also be made accessible.
In general, airports under construction or being refurbished must comply with the
ADA Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG) and other regulations governing accessibility
in accordance with a timetable established in the ADA. Thus, while there are still
many changes to be made, the accessibility of most airports is improving. With few
exceptions, the following services should be available in all air carrier terminals
within the next few years:
Moving Through the Airport
To make travel easier for an individual with a disability, major airports will be
required to make the following services accessible under new rules being put into
effect in the next several years:
Carriers must ensure that individuals with disabilities, including those with vision
and hearing impairments, have timely access to the same information provided to
other passengers, including (but not limited to) information on:
This information must be made available upon request. A crew member is not required
to interrupt his or her immediate safety duties to supply such information.
A copy of the Air Carrier Access rules must be made available by carriers for inspection
upon request at each airport.
As previously noted, any carrier that provides telephone service for the purpose
of making reservations or offering general information shall also provide TT service.
This service for people with speech and hearing impairments must be available during
the same hours that the general public has access to regular phone service, with
equivalent response times and charges.
An individual with a disability must undergo the same security screening as any
other member of the traveling public.
If an individual with a disability is able to pass through the security system without
activating it, the person shall not be subject to special screening procedures.
Security personnel are free to examine an assistive device that they believe is
capable of concealing a weapon or other prohibited item. If an individual with a
disability is not able to pass through the system without activating it, the person
will be subject to further screening in the same manner as any other passenger activating
Security screening personnel at some airports may employ a hand-held device that
will allow them to complete the screening without having to physically search the
individual. If this method is still unable to clear the individual and a physical
search becomes necessary, then at the passenger's request, the search must be done
If the passenger requests a private screening in a timely manner, the carrier must
provide it in time for the passenger to board the aircraft. Such private screenings
will not be required, however, to a greater extent or for any different reason than
for other passengers. . However, they may take more time.
A medical certificate is a written statement from the passenger's physician saying
that the passenger is capable of completing the flight safely without requiring
extraordinary medical care.
A disability is not sufficient grounds for a carrier to request a medical certificate.
Carriers shall not require passengers to present a medical certificate unless the
Carriers cannot mandate separate treatment for an individual with a disability except
for reasons of safety or to prevent the spread of a communicable disease or infection.
As part of their responsibility to their passengers, air carriers try to prevent
the spread of infection or a communicable disease on board an aircraft. If a person
who seeks passage has an infection or disease that would be transmittable during
the normal course of a flight, and that has been deemed so by a federal public health
authority knowledgeable about the disease or infection, then the carrier may:
The Safety Briefing
FAA REGULATIONS REQUIRE THAT carrier personnel provide a safety briefing to all
passengers before takeoff. This briefing is for the passengers' own safety and is
intended for that purpose only.
Carrier personnel may offer an individual briefing to a person whose disability
precludes him or her from receiving the information presented in the general briefing.
The individual briefing must be provided as inconspicuously and discretely as possible.
Most carriers choose to offer this briefing before other passengers board the flight
if the passenger with a disability chooses to pre-board the flight. A carrier can
present the special briefing at any time before takeoff that does not interfere
with other safety duties.
Carriers may not `quiz' the individual about the material presented in the briefing,
except to the same degree they quiz all passengers about the general briefing. A
carrier cannot take any adverse action against the passenger on the basis that,
in the carrier's opinion, the passenger did not understand the safety briefing.
SSafety briefings presented to passengers on video screens must have an open caption
or an insert for a sign language interpreter, unless this would interfere with the
video or would not be large enough to be seen. This requirement takes effect as
old videos are replaced in the normal course of business.
Handling of Mobility Aids and Assistive Devices
To the extent consistent with various FAA safety regulations, passengers may bring
on board and use ventilators and respirators, powered by non-spillable batteries.
Assistive devices brought into the cabin by an individual with a disability shall
not count toward a limit on carry-on items. br>
Persons using canes and other assistive devices may stow these items on board the
aircraft, consistent with safety regulations. Carriers shall permit passengers to
stow wheelchairs or component parts of a mobility device under seats, or in overhead
Carriers must permit one folding wheelchair to be stowed in a cabin closet, or other
approved priority storage area, if the aircraft has such areas and stowage can be
accomplished in accordance with FAA safety regulations. If the passenger using it
pre-boards, stowage of the wheelchair takes priority over the carry-on items brought
on by other passengers enplaning at the same airport (including passengers in another
cabin, such as First Class), but not over items of passengers who boarded at previous
When stowed in the cargo compartment, wheelchairs and other assistive devices must
be given priority over cargo and baggage, and must be among the first items unloaded.
Mobility aids shall be returned to the owner as close as possible to the door of
the aircraft (consistent with DOT hazardous materials regulations) or at the baggage
claim area, in accordance with whatever request was made by the passenger before
If the priority storage accorded to mobility aids prevents another passenger's baggage
from being carried, the carrier shall make its best efforts to ensure the other
baggage arrives within four hours.
On certain aircraft, some assistive devices will have to be disassembled in order
to be transported (e.g., electric wheelchairs, other devices too large to fit in
the cabin or in the cargo hold in one piece). When assistive devices are disassembled,
carriers are obligated to return them to passengers in the condition that the carrier
received them (e.g., assembled).
Carriers must transport battery-powered wheelchairs, except where cargo compartment
size or aircraft airworthiness considerations do not permit doing so. Electric wheelchairs
must be treated in accordance with both DOT regulations for handling hazardous materials,
and DOT Air Carrier Access regulations, which differentiate between spillable and
Spillable Batteries. If the chair is powered by a spillable battery, the battery
must be removed unless the wheelchair can be loaded, stored, secured, and unloaded
always in an upright position. When it is possible to load, store, secure, and unload
with the wheelchair always in an upright position and the battery is securely attached
to the wheelchair, the carrier may not remove the battery from the chair.
Nonspillable batteries. It is never necessary under the DOT hazardous materials
regulations to remove a nonspillable battery from a wheelchair before stowing it.
There may be individual cases, however, in which a carrier is unable to determine
whether a battery is spillable or nonspillable. DOT has issued new rules that require
new non-spillable batteries to be marked as such effective September 1995.
The carrier may remove a particular unmarked battery from the mobility aid if there
is reasonable doubt that it is nonspillable, and it cannot be loaded, stored, secured
and unloaded always in an upright position. An across-the-board assumption that
all batteries are spillable is not consistent with the Air Carrier Access rules.
A nonspillable battery may be removed where it appears to be damaged and leakage
of battery fluid is possible.
Determining the Battery Type. Compliance with DOT rules on the marking of nonspillable
batteries is sufficient to identify a battery as nonspillable for this purpose.
In the absence of such markings, carrier personnel are responsible for determining,
on a case-by-case basis, whether a battery is nonspillable, taking into account
information provided by the user of the wheelchair.
The battery of a wheelchair may not be drained.
When DOT hazardous materials regulations require detaching the battery from the
wheelchair, the carrier shall upon request provide packaging for the battery that
will meet safety requirements.
Carriers may not charge for packaging wheelchair batteries.
Carriers may require passengers with electric wheelchairs to check in one hour before
If a passenger checks in less than one hour before flight time, the carrier shall
make a reasonable effort to carry his or her wheelchair unless this would delay
Carriers must allow passengers to provide written instructions concerning the disassembly
and assembly of their wheelchairs.
Carriers may not require a passenger with a disability to sign a waiver of liability
for damage or loss of wheelchairs or other assistive devices. The carrier may make
note of any pre-existing defect to the device.
On domestic trips, carriers' maximum liability for loss, damage or delay in returning
assistive devices is twice the liability limit established for passengers' luggage
under DOT regulations. As of the publication of this booklet, the current limit
for liability on assistive devices is $2,500 per passenger (i.e., two times the
$1,250 limit for luggage). (As with other passenger baggage, this limit can usually
be increased by purchasing Excess Valuation coverage from the airline.) The passenger
should also check his or her homeowners or renters insurance to determine whether
it provides additional coverage.
TThis expanded liability does not extend to international trips, where the Warsaw
Convention applies. For most international trips (including the domestic portions
of an international trip) the current liability is approximately $9.07 per pound
for checked baggage and $400 per passenger for unchecked baggage.
Boarding and Deplaning
Properly trained service personnel who are knowledgeable on how to assist individuals
with a disability in boarding and exiting must be available if needed. Equipment
used for assisting passengers must be kept in good working condition. br>
Boarding and exiting most medium and large-size jet aircraft is almost always by
way of level boarding ramps or mobile lounges, which must be accessible. If ramps
or mobile lounges are not used, a lifting device (other than a device used for freight)
must be provided to assist persons with limited mobility safely on and off the aircraft.
For certain small aircraft, however, at present there are few suitable devices to
assist persons with limited mobility in boarding and exiting. Lifting devices for
smaller aircraft are now under development and will be put into place as soon as
they become available.
Carriers do not have to hand-carry passengers on and off aircraft with fewer than
30 seats, if this is the only means of getting the person on and off the aircraft.
Carrier employees may do so on a strictly voluntary basis.
In order to provide some personal assistance and extra time, the air carrier may
offer a passenger with a disability, or any passenger that may be in need of assistance,
the opportunity to pre-board the aircraft. The passenger has the option to accept
or decline the offer.
On connecting flights, the delivering carrier is responsible for providing assistance
to the individual with a disability in reaching his or her connecting flight.
CCarriers cannot leave a passenger unattended for more than 30 minutes in a ground
wheelchair, boarding chair, or other device in which the passenger is not independently
PRIOR TO THE ENACTMENT OF THE AIR Carrier Access Act of 1986, accessibility requirements
for aircraft were very limited. The rules implementing that law require that new
aircraft delivered after April 1992 have the following accessibility features:
An aircraft delivered before April 1992 does not have to be made accessible until
its interior is refurbished. At that time the relevant accessibility features shall
Airplanes in the commercial fleet have their seats replaced under different schedules
depending on the carrier. At the time when all seats are being replaced on an aircraft
with 30 or more passenger seats,half of the aisle seats must be equipped with movable
aisle armrests. This shall be done on smaller aircraft to the extent it is not inconsistent
with structural, weight, balance, operational or interior configuration limitations.
Similarly, all aircraft undergoing replacement of cabin interior elements or lavatories
must meet the accessibility requirements for the affected features, including cabin
storage space for a folding wheelchair, and an on-board wheelchair if there is an
accessible lavatory (unless prohibited by structural, weight, balance, or configuration
An individual with a disability cannot be required to sit in a particular seat or
be excluded from any seat, except as provided by FAA safety rules, such as the FAA
Exit Row Seating rule. For safety reasons, that rule limits seating in exit rows
to those persons with the most potential to be able to operate the emergency exit
and help in an aircraft evacuation. The carrier cannot deny transport, but may deny
specific seats to travelers who are less than age 15 or lack the capacity to act
without an adult, or who lack sufficient mobility, strength, dexterity, vision,
hearing, speech, reading or comprehension abilities to perform emergency evacuation
functions. The carrier may also deny specific seats to persons with a condition
or responsibilities, such as caring for small children, that might prevent the person
from performing emergency evacuation functions, or cause harm to themselves in doing
A traveler with a disability may also be denied certain seats if:
In each instance, carriers are obligated to offer alternative
Carriers must permit dog guides or other service animals with appropriate identification
to accompany an individual with a disability on a flight. Identification may include
cards or other documentation, presence of a harness or markings on a harness, tags,
or the credible verbal assurance of the passenger using the animal.
If carriers provide special information to passengers concerning the transportation
of animals outside the continental United States, they must provide such information
to all passengers with animals on such flights, not simply to passengers with disabilities
who are traveling with service animals.
Carriers must permit a service animal to accompany a traveler with a disability
to any seat in which the person sits, unless the animal obstructs an aisle or other
area that must remain clear in order to facilitate an emergency evacuation, in which
case the passenger will be assigned another seat.
Air carrier personnel shall assist a passenger with a disability to:
Carrier personnel are not required to provide assistance inside
the lavatory or at the passenger's seat with elimination functions. The carrier
personnel are also not required to perform medical services for an individual with
Charges for Accommodations Prohibited
Carriers cannot impose charges for providing facilities, equipment, or services
to an individual with a disability that are required by DOT's Air Carrier Access
regulations. They may charge for optional services, however, such as oxygen and
accommodation of stretchers.
Carriers must provide training on passengers with disabilities for all personnel
who deal with the traveling public. This training shall be appropriate to the duties
of each employee and will be designed to help the employee understand the special
needs of these travelers, and how they can be accommodated quickly, safely, and
with dignity. The training must familiarize employees with:
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