My mailbag is overflowing with air travel questions this month; and with the peak holiday travel season right around the corner, there's no time like the present to clear the air about a few air travel issues. With that in mind, here's a sampling of what travelers want to know about access in the friendly skies.
Can I Fly Alone?
Paul from St. Louis writes, "I've heard some U.S. airlines don't let wheelchair-users fly without an attendant. Is this true?"
Under the Air Carriers Access Act (ACAA), U.S. Airlines cannot discriminate against passengers solely because of a disability; however they can require passengers to travel with a safety assistant. Unlike an attendant, the sole duty of a safety assistant is to assist the passenger in the event of an emergency evacuation. In most cases, a safety assistant is required if the passenger can't physically assist with his or her own emergency evacuation. Under the law this is considered a safety issue, and the final decision about whether or not a safety assistant is required is left up to the captain.
In most cases, the airlines will opt to appoint a volunteer or even an off duty employee as the safety assistant; however they aren't required to find one for you. The catch is, if they require a safety assistant (above your objections) and they don't find one for you; then the safety assistant you choose will travel for free. So if you are ever told you can't fly without a safety assistant, don't worry; as it's not hard to find a willing volunteer in the departure lounge, especially when a free flight is up for grabs.
Exit Row Seating
Mike from New Jersey inquires, "Could you tell me what the law says about wheelchair-users sitting in exit row seats?
Generally speaking, airlines bar wheelchair-users from sitting in exit rows. They are well within their rights to do this, as it's not an area covered under the ACAA. In fact it's an area exempt from the ACAA because it's considered a safety issue. Safety issues are covered under Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations; however final discretion in all safety matters is left up to the captain. Additionally, the captain is the only person who the Complaints Resolution Official cannot override.
Can I Still Meet Mom at the Gate?
Lisa from Florida asks, "Although my mother can walk a little, she uses a wheelchair when she travels. Can I take her to the gate and meet her upon her return?"
Many wheelchair-users are routinely accompanied by non-ticketed family members. According to the FAA, "Provisions will be made for disabled persons and persons with special needs who need to be accompanied by healthcare assistants or guardians beyond the checkpoint."
Although the procedure differs depending on the airline; in most cases you need to show a photo ID to the ticket agent in order to obtain a security checkpoint pass. Some airlines also require advance notice, so contact your airline for the exact procedure.
Charge for Wheelchair?
Mark from Rhode Island writes, "With all the new baggage charges, I'm afraid that the airlines will charge me to carry my wheelchair. Can they do this?"
Technically there is nothing in the law that specifically states that airlines can't charge passengers for carrying wheelchairs; however the nondiscrimination section of the ACAA prohibits airlines from charging for services required under the law. So in a broad sense, charging for carrying a wheelchair is prohibited Today, no U.S. airline charges for transporting personal wheelchairs; however they can charge for sporting equipment like sit skis, handcycles or sports wheelchairs.
Candy Harrington is the editor of Emerging Horizons and the author of 101 Accessible Vacations: Travel Ideas for Wheelers and Slow Walkers. She blogs regularly about accessible travel issues at www.barrierfreetravels.com.