May 20, 2024

Disability Barriers to Air Travel Targeted in New Aviation Law

Source: Bloomberg Government


Air travel for those with disabilities is set to see some improvements stemming from broad, bipartisan legislation Congress cleared last week — a step forward in advocates’ long fight for friendlier skies.

The multiyear Federal Aviation Administration legislation (H.R. 3935) authorizes $20 million a year for a new pilot program to make airports more accessible, requires plane seating accommodations and seeks to improve protections for passengers in wheelchairs and those traveling with service animals.

“Every airport has problems,” said Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), the Senate’s aviation safety subcommittee chair who drew on her own experience in a wheelchair to press for remedies. “We can do better.” Some gates still lack a jet bridge, and she’s had to go through the bowels of an airport and across the tarmac to get to a plane, Duckworth said in an exclusive interview with Bloomberg Government last week.

The Transportation Department will need to issue rules on seating accommodations for passengers with disabilities and set up an optional program for those with service animals to use an easier pre-registration process. The new law also requires airlines to detail the availability of on-board wheelchairs and publish information on the dimensions of aircraft cargo holds, providing refunds if passengers can’t fly because their wheelchairs don’t fit in the hold.

Duckworth said she’s been on long flights where she’s needed to use the restroom and airlines said there wasn’t an onboard wheelchair. “That’s supposed to be there so we address that issue,” she said. Duckworth, an Army veteran who lost both legs in the Iraq war, said she worked on the measure with advocates and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

The legislation received support from groups that called the accessibility provisions a “crucial step forward.” Donald Wood, president and CEO of the Muscular Dystrophy Association, said the bill’s passage marks “the most significant advancement in accessible air travel in nearly four decades.”

There would also be more transparency around disability-related complaints with air travel by requiring the Transportation Department to report annually on how the agency is handling the tens of thousands of such grievances it receives each year.

“This is also about empowering the consumer,” Duckworth said. “By having transparency, it allows a consumer to say ‘Oh, you know what, that airline is not good with wheelchairs, I’m going to book on some other airlines,’ and use the buying power of the flying public to influence airlines’ actions as well.”

The Biden administration earlier had pursued accessibility rules, including some similar to those in the legislation on improved training standards for those assisting passengers who use wheelchairs and stowing mobility devices. Air carriers mishandled 11,527 wheelchairs and scooters in 2023, according to the Transportation Department.

“We want this to be in statute,” Duckworth said. “By putting it into this FAA reauthorization, we make sure that these provisions will outlast presidential administrations.”

By:  Lillianna Byington