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Pressure Mounts for Improving Accessibility for Air Travelers with Disabilities | Frommer's cunaplus / Shutterstock

Pressure Mounts for Improving Accessibility for Air Travelers with Disabilities

Advocates and some government leaders say more needs to be done to make air travel safer and easier for people who use wheelchairs. 

Every time he boards a commercial aircraft, Lee Page fears being injured.

Having used a wheelchair for more than four decades, Page says the airline boarding process requires transferring to an aisle-specific chair—far smaller than his customized wheelchair—then getting transported by an attendant down the aisle, often bumping into armrests along the way, before finally being lifted into his seat.

“The whole process, truthfully, has no dignity at all,” Page told Frommer’s. “The reality is, I’m being treated like cargo to a degree.”

Once on board, Page’s concerns transition to what’s happening in the plane’s cargo area. All too often, wheelchairs, scooters, and other important equipment end up damaged, leaving passengers without a viable mobility option.

(Passenger waiting in a special wheelchair designed for airplane aisles | Credit: Halfpoint / Shutterstock)

According to Bureau of Transportation Statistics data, more than 1,000 mobility devices checked by airlines were mishandled in 2022, for an overall rate of mishandled wheelchairs and scooters that’s more than double the rate at which other kinds of luggage were mishandled last year. And the ramifications of a broken wheelchair are typically far more serious than the results of a dinged suitcase.

“The current experience for passengers with disabilities is, at best, frustrating and sometimes worse—unsafe,” Page, who serves as senior associate director for advocacy at the nonprofit Paralyzed Veterans of America, told congressional leaders last month. 

He’s far from alone in his concern.

The Growing Movement for Improved Accessibility in Air Travel

Frustration over the accessibility of commercial aircraft is a global issue. In February, British TV personality and advocate Sophie Morgan launched a campaign called “Rights on Flights,” centered on improving air travel accessibility.

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A post shared by Sophie Morgan (@sophlmorg)

In a video posted to social media, Morgan highlights a series of alarming news reports about damaged wheelchairs and other worrying incidents, including one in which a passenger with disabilities was stranded on a plane long after landing at the U.K.’s Gatwick Airport.

An even more serious high-profile case involved 25-year-old Gaby Assouline, who became paralyzed after falling from her wheelchair while boarding a Southwest Airlines flight in South Florida in early 2021. Assouline died about a year later. (Southwest denies accusations of carelessness and neglect in a lawsuit filed by the woman’s family.)

How Washington and Airlines Are Responding 

Last summer the U.S. Department of Transportation released a long-awaited Airline Passengers with Disabilities Bill of Rights summarizing protections under the decades-old Air Carrier Access Act, signed into law in the 1980s by President Ronald Reagan.

Among other provisions, the document affirms that airlines can’t require passengers to accept restrictions that don’t apply to other passengers, must provide passengers prompt and timely boarding and deplaning assistance, and must allow passengers with disabilities to board before any other flyers.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg called the document and other consumer-oriented provisions the “latest steps toward ensuring an air travel system that works for everyone.” 

But on Capitol Hill, calls for further protections are growing louder.                         

“When people with disabilities fly, they should have the same rights as everybody else and be treated properly,” Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) said at the recent House aviation subcommittee meeting held as part of talks for the upcoming Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reauthorization bill—a key part of setting the regulatory agency’s policy course for years to come.

The most recent reauthorization bill, passed in 2018, helped bring about a 2022 DOT notice of proposed rulemaking that outlined a future requirement for airlines to have accessible lavatories not just on larger, twin-aisle aircraft (as required by 1980s-era regulations) but also on single-aisle planes—the aircraft used on the overwhelming majority of domestic flights.

As discussion heats up for the 2023 bill, Page of Paralyzed Veterans of America told congressional leaders he’d like to see lawmakers focus on concerns related to ease of boarding and deplaning as well as frequently damaged mobility devices.

That’s a sentiment echoed by Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), who noted in a recent Senate hearing, “Every commercial American airline has broken one of my wheelchairs.”

Duckworth, a retired Illinois Army National Guard lieutenant colonel and Blackhawk helicopter pilot, lost her legs while serving in Iraq and uses a wheelchair for mobility.

In a statement to Frommer’s, Duckworth said her policy priorities center on requiring the DOT to publish an annual report disclosing disability-related complaints, and legislation she sponsored that would require the FAA to establish emergency cabin evacuation standards that take into account passengers with mobility issues.

Currently, FAA standards require only that aircraft passengers be able to evacuate within 90 seconds, but Duckworth asserts that the tests carried out to determine safety don’t adequately take into account the needs of passengers with mobility issues.

“We must act to make flying as safe as we know it can be—and as safe as all Americans deserve,” Duckworth said.

The largest U.S. carriers’ primary lobbying firm, for its part, insists that airlines are making progress in this area.

“We are committed to doing a better job in making sure that folks with disabilities are able to travel safely and comfortably,” testified Sharon Pinkerton, senior vice president for legislative and regulatory policy at Airlines for America, during the House aviation subcommittee hearing. 

Pinkerton pointed to major U.S. airlines’ recently created policy advisory boards and to the inclusion of people with disabilities on those boards. She also outlined a renewed commitment to training frontline employees, including those who regularly handle wheelchairs and mobility devices.

“I think those three actions are critical and demonstrate our commitment,” Pinkerton said.

Page would like to see the air travel experience for passengers with disabilities fall more closely in line with other modes of transportation like train or bus travel, governed under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

He told Frommer’s his ultimate hope is being able to board and fly commercial aircraft in his own, customized wheelchair. 

“You go to a ball game … they’ve got seats for you—good seats behind home plate. Same things at a concert hall,” he said. “A lot of times everything works perfectly [with air travel]. But there are time where it doesn’t.”

Resources Available for Passengers with Disabilities

  • • The Airline Passengers with Disabilities Bill of Rights is available for download or viewing here.
  • • This video from the U.S. Department of Transportation summarizes key parts of the Airline Passengers with Disabilities Bill of Rights.
  • • Passengers wanting to file a complaint about discrimination on the part of an airline can do so here, on the FAA's web page for consumer complaints.
  • • Complaints falling under the airport’s responsibility can be directed to the FAA or the U.S. Department of Justice’s Americans with Disabilities Act "File a Complaint" page.