New Bill of Rights for Air Travelers with Disabilities

The Department of Transportation bill aims to educate travelers about their rights.

By Stephanie Watson | Sept. 1, 2022

Air travel invariably comes with hassles and headaches. But for travelers with disabilities, a lack of accessibility, assistance and equal treatment can turn navigating an airport and flying into a nightmare scenario. The media is filled with harrowing accounts of passengers with disabilities left stranded without their wheelchairs in foreign airports or humiliated by undignified treatment from airline staff.

The U.S. Department of Transportation released its first Airline Passengers with Disabilities Bill of Rights in July 2022 to educate air travelers with disabilities about their fundamental rights, which could help take some of the pain out of air travel. Among them are the right to be treated with dignity and respect, the right to accessible airport facilities, the right to assistance at airports and on airplanes and the right to travel with assistive devices or service animals.

The rights outlined in the bill aren’t really new. They’ve existed as part of the Air Carrier Access Act, which President Ronald Reagan signed into law in 1986. The new document is simply a more user-friendly way of presenting the existing regulations to travelers.

“It’s a shorter document — something that can be printed out, stored in a bag, referenced during one’s journey and more easily understood,” says John Morris, founder of Wheelchair Travel. “The hope is that passengers who are better informed about the protections that they’re entitled to will be able to be more effective advocates for themselves during the travel journey.”

Does the Bill of Rights Apply to Me?

The Bill of Rights includes anyone with “a physical or mental impairment that permanently or temporarily impacts a major life activity such as walking, hearing or breathing.”

All flights on United States airlines, as well as flights on foreign airlines that depart from or arrive to the U.S., fall under the regulations. It applies not only to airline staff in the airport and on board, but also to airline subcontractors. One exception is if the right in question does not comply with government safety and security laws.

What Actions Can I Take?

It helps to be proactive when you travel. If you’re going to need additional assistance for your flight, let the airline know in advance so staff can be in place to accommodate your request. While providing this information won’t always result in a better experience, it may make your trip go more smoothly, Morris says. TSA Cares also has resources to help, but you must contact them in advance through the website or by calling (855) 787-2227.

If you encounter any problems during your journey — for example, if your airline doesn’t provide you with the wheelchair you requested, treats you disrespectfully or refuses to help you with your luggage — there are actions you can take.

First, ask your airline to call in a Complaint Resolution Official (CRO). This trained expert in disability-related issues will listen to the problem and act as the airline’s representative to try to resolve the situation.

Sometimes a CRO won’t be enough. If you’re not satisfied with the services you receive, you have the right to file a complaint with the airline or the DOT’s Aviation Consumer Protection Division. The DOT can issue fines to airlines for violations of the Air Carrier Access Act — if they follow through. “Ultimately, the power of these civil rights lies in the hands of the DOT. If they won’t hold airlines to account, then passengers will continue to suffer,” says Morris.

Despite the continuing challenges that people with disabilities face when traveling, Morris is optimistic that accessibility is changing for the better and the Bill of Rights is a move in the right direction. “It will help people become more familiar with the services they should receive,” he says. “It will allow them to set better expectations and demand that airlines follow through with their obligations. I think that that’s going to be a net positive.”

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