Navigating Accessibility Claims Against Airlines
Unfortunately, memories of vacations and air travel are not always or entirely pleasant for persons with disabilities. Even with the increase in disabled travelers taking to the skies, accommodations at airports and on planes are too often inconsistent and unsatisfactory. This article briefly outlines some of the key rights of air travelers with disabilities and summarizes the steps for filing a legal claim, if necessary.
The cornerstone of legal rights for air travelers with disabilities is the Air Carrier Access Act ("ACAA"). This Federal statute was enacted by Congress in 1986, and is set forth in detail at Title 49, Section 41705. The law prohibits discrimination and requires airlines to accommodate the needs of passengers with disabilities.
Congress has given the Department of Transportation ("DOT") specific authority to enact regulations implementing the ACAA. These regulations are set forth in Title 14, Part 382 of the Code of Federal Regulations. They have the full force and effect of law.
Discriminatory Practices Are Prohibited.
The DOT regulations prohibit airlines from refusing to transport people on the basis of their disability. Airlines may only exclude a person from flying if doing so is necessary to prevent serious danger to the flight. If an airline makes such a decision, it must provide the traveler involved with a written decision explaining its rationale.
Generally, airlines may not require prior notice that a person with a disability is traveling. Airlines may, however, require up to 48 hours of advance notice for certain accommodations that require special preparation time, like a respirator hook-up. Airlines are not allowed to limit the number of disabled persons on a particular flight. In addition, they may not require a disabled passenger to fly with an attendant, except in certain limited instances. If the airline and the passenger disagree about the need for a personal attendant, the airline may supply its own attendant, but must pay his or her fare itself.
Airlines must also accommodate passengers using service animals. Service animals need not travel with checked baggage, unless no seats are available on the aircraft. For individuals traveling with service animals, the airline must provide a bulkhead seat if requested.
Facilities Must Be Accessible.
Airports and aircraft must both be accessible. Terminals are places of public accommodation and must conform in all respects to the standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Planes built after 1990 with 30 or more seats must have removable armrests on at least half of the aisle seats. The lavatories on newer wide-body planes must be fully accessible. Newer planes with 100 or more seats must have priority space for storing a passenger's folding wheelchair in the cabin. Planes with more than 60 seats must also be equipped with an operable on-board wheelchair.
If the aisles on the aircraft are too narrow to accommodate an individual's wheelchair, the passenger may need to transfer to a smaller aisle chair. If a passenger using an aisle chair cannot readily transfer over a fixed aisle armrest, the airline must provide a seat in a row with a movable aisle armrest.
Airlines are also required, under the DOT regulations, to provide assistance with boarding, deplaning and making connections. Such assistance includes the use of services personnel, ground wheelchairs, on-board and aisle wheelchairs, ramps and mechanical lifts. In no case shall airline personnel be required to hand-carry a passenger in order to provide boarding assistance.
Wheelchairs and other assistive devices have priority for in-cabin storage space over other passengers' items. Airlines may not charge for providing accommodations required by the regulations.
How to Assert Your Legal Rights.
The ACAA provides a comprehensive, 3-tiered enforcement scheme. The first tier is enforced by the airlines themselves, the second tier is administered by the DOT, and the third tier involves review by the Federal courts.
Airlines must designate "complaints resolutions officials" to respond to complaints from passengers. These officials must be readily available at each airport served by the airline, either in person or via telephone. These officials must be familiar with the DOT regulations and must have the authority to resolve any ACAA-related complaints.
If the passenger disagrees with the airline official's decision, he or she may file a formal complaint with the Secretary of Transportation under 49 U.S.C. sec. 41705(c)(1). If the Secretary decides that there appear to be reasonable grounds for the complaint, the DOT may impose up to a $25,000 fine for each violation, 49 U.S.C. sec. 46301, or it may separately initiate a civil action in the Federal District Courts to enforce the ACAA. The ACAA also gives individuals the right to appeal any adverse decision by the Secretary to a Federal appellate court. 49 U.S.C. sec 46110(a).
This article only briefly summarizes an air traveler's rights and remedies under the ACAA. For more detailed information, you may wish to consult this DOT web site: www.dotcr.ost.dot.gov.