Traveling with a wheelchair or other mobility device is stressful enough. Having to fly with a wheelchair and deal with how many airlines treat our most precious mobility gear can induce a panic attack. From how they bring us on the aircraft to the often long waits to get off, it seems like airlines don’t pay wheelchair users much mind these days. The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) outlines our rights as passengers with disabilities, but unfortunately, many airline employees are either completely unaware of the provisions or choose not to follow them. Here are some of the most critical provisions of the ACAA that you must know before you fly to make your travel experience easier, and help you defend your rights as a wheelchair user.
1. You can request an aisle wheelchair on US domestic flights. Transatlantic flights from the US almost always involve a larger plane with two aisles, and these planes usually already have an aisle chair on board. However, the United States is a very large country, and I often have to take domestic flights that last three hours or longer. Domestic flights, except on rare occasions, involve narrow-bodied aircraft with only one aisle – and no way for me to get to the lavatory. I can usually “hold it” for that long, but I get very stressed out that I might night on Orlando-to-California flights that last five hours. Recently, during some research I found this invaluable section of the ACAA:
14 C.F.R. § 382.65 What are the requirements concerning on-board wheelchairs?
(b) If a passenger asks you to provide an on-board wheelchair on a particular flight, you must provide it if the aircraft being used for the flight has more than 60 passenger seats, even if the aircraft does not have an accessible lavatory.
(1) The basis of the passenger’s request must be that he or she can use an inaccessible lavatory but cannot reach it from a seat without using an onboard wheelchair.
(2) You may require the passenger to provide the advance notice specified in § 382.27 to receive this service.
Of course, you still won’t find an accessible lavatory on a US domestic flight – a requirement for many wheelchair travelers. However, some (like me) can self-transfer to a regular lavatory toilet, and just need a way from our seat to the lavatory. Before your next domestic flight, quote this ACAA section when you make your request, and I would suggest doing it via email since many airline employees can’t differentiate between an aisle SEAT (the actual place you sit on the plane) and an aisle CHAIR (the wheelchair to move you on the plane).
2. They must bring your wheelchair or mobility device to the door of the plane. Remember that the ACAA is a US law, so airlines don’t always do this when you arrive at a foreign airport (although many do). However, no matter where you arrive from, if you arrive in a US airport, this section of the ACAA applies:
14 C.F.R. §382.125 What procedures do carriers follow when wheelchairs, other mobility aids, and other assistive devices must be stowed in the cargo compartment?
(c) You must provide for the checking and timely return of passengers’ wheelchairs, other mobility aids, and other assistive devices as close as possible to the door of the aircraft, so that passengers may use their own equipment to the extent possible, except
(1) Where this practice would be inconsistent with Federal regulations governing transportation security or the transportation of hazardous materials; or
(2) When the passenger requests the return of the items at the baggage claim area instead of at the door of the aircraft.
(d) In order to achieve the timely return of wheelchairs, you must ensure that passengers’ wheelchairs, other mobility aids, and other assistive devices are among the first items retrieved from the baggage compartment.
Many times, airline reps or airport employees will tell you that they have to transfer you to a manual wheelchair and you have to pick up your mobility aid at baggage claim or the US Customs area. THIS IS NOT TRUE! I’d like to quote from my friend John Morris’s blog, WheelchairTravel.org:
“Upon returning to the United States from abroad, I can’t count how many times airlines have told me that my wheelchair couldn’t be returned to the gate. The message is the same, regardless of carrier—it must be retrieved at customs/baggage claim, Customs & Border Patrol won’t release the chair to gate, etc. These are all lies. U.S. Customs and Border Patrol will not hold a wheelchair hostage or deny it from passengers who have a legal right (per the ACAA) to receive it at the aircraft. Typically, the baggage handlers put it on a cart and send it to baggage claim, where CBP then holds it until the passenger arrives. there is no requirement for the airline to send the wheelchair to customs in the first place. They will simply need to call a CBP agent to supervise its transfer from the ramp to the jet bridge. Most airlines are too concerned with going through these steps, and send it to customs to get rid of the problem. DON’T BACK DOWN. Tell the airline to retrieve your wheelchair. Ask to speak to a CBP agent. Call for a Complaint Resolution Official. Ask to speak with the airline’s station manager. And NEVER, EVER GET OFF THE PLANE until your wheelchair is delivered to the jet bridge. If you follow these steps and insist on your rights being upheld, you’ll get your wheelchair back.”
I can attest to the truth of John’s post. On the arrival of my recent Lufthansa flight from Frankfurt to Orlando, the Lufthansa staff in Orlando tried to tell me I had to pick up my electric scooter at Customs. I politely refused, and told them I would wait until they brought it to me at the door of the plane. They told me it wouldn’t fit through the entry to that particular jet bridge, and they didn’t want to carry it up the stairs (it only weighs 92 pounds). I smiled and told them I had confidence they would figure it out. I could see they were getting frustrated with me, but I stood my ground. About twenty minutes later, they were rolling my scooter down the jet bridge to me.
3. People requiring mobility assistance must board first. This ACAA provision gets violated all the time, and usually because the airline employees don’t request airport assistance (with aisle chairs, for example) in a timely manner, or the airport can’t get its act together. The Act ensures that travelers with disabilities can board before able-bodied passengers. Here are the provisions regarding pre-boarding:
14 C.F.R. § 382.93 Must carriers offer preboarding to passengers with a disability?
As a carrier, you must offer preboarding to passengers with a disability who self-identify at the gate as needing additional time or assistance to board, stow accessibility equipment, or be seated.
In May 2013, the US Department of Transportation issued a notice titled “Additional Guidance on the Application of Preboarding Requirements for Air Travelers with Disabilities.” It appeared there was some confusion regarding the meaning of pre-boarding, and the notice provided clarification:
“It is the Enforcement Office’s view that section 382.93 requires carriers to board passengers with disabilities who self-identify at the gate as needing to preboard for one of the listed reasons to board the plane before all other passengers, including first class passengers, elite-level passengers, members of the military, passengers with small children, etc. The purpose of section 382.93 is to afford passengers with disabilities who are entitled to preboard enough time and space to board, stow their accessibility equipment, or be seated safely.”
In other words, if you see the gate agents trying to board able-bodied people before you and/or other people needing mobility assistance, ask them to stop and remind them that the ACAA requires them to board you first.
4. You must be allowed to select any unoccupied aircraft seat that meets your needs in your class of service without paying extra. If airlines can find any way to fleece you for money, they will – including people with mobility impairments. The two main requirements most wheelchair users have when flying are a seat with a moveable armrest and more legroom. The first requirement is pretty straightforward:
14 C.F.R. § 382.81 For which passengers must carriers make seating accommodations?
(a) For a passenger who uses an aisle chair to access the aircraft and who cannot readily transfer over a fixed aisle armrest, you must provide a seat in a row with a movable aisle armrest. You must ensure that your personnel are trained in the location and proper use of movable aisle armrests, including appropriate transfer techniques. You must ensure that aisle seats with movable armrests are clearly identifiable.
Securing a seat with additional legroom, like a bulkhead seat, can be more tricky. Usually, airlines will charge you more to select a bulkhead seat when making a reservation online. However, you can call the airline and have them change your seat using their computer system:
14 C.F.R. § 382.81 For which passengers must carriers make seating accommodations?
(d) For a passenger with a fused or immobilized leg, you must provide a bulkhead seat or other seat that provides greater legroom than other seats, on the side of an aisle that better accommodates the individual’s disability.
14 C.F.R. § 382.83 Through what mechanisms do carriers make seating accommodations?
(a) If you are a carrier that provides advance seat assignments to passengers (i.e., offer seat assignments to passengers before the day of the flight), you must comply with the requirements of §382.81 of this Part by any of the following methods:
(1) You may “block” an adequate number of the seats used to provide the seating accommodations required by §382.81.
(ii) At any time up until 24 hours before the scheduled departure of the flight, you must assign a seat meeting the requirements of this section to a passenger with a disability meeting one or more of the requirements of §382.81 who requests it, at the time the passenger initially makes the request.
Here is where things get tricky. Many airlines have “premium economy” sections – the parts of the plane that usually have the bulkhead seats. In some cases, these sections are designated as a separated class of service, meaning that legally they don’t have to offer that seat to you for free:
14 C.F.R. § 382.87 What other requirements pertain to seating for passengers with a disability?
(f) You are not required to furnish more than one seat per ticket or to provide a seat in a class of service other than the one the passenger has purchased in order to provide an accommodation required by this Part.
You may get lucky with an airline agent that will give you the seat. I find this is more likely to happen when you make the request at check-in at the airport or at the gate at least an hour before you board.
These are just a few of the many provisions of the ACAA, and I recommend that you take the time to read and familiarize yourself with the entire Act so you know what your rights are. In the meantime, take a printout of this blog post with you the next time you fly so you have the exact ACAA provisions handy and ready to demonstrate to airline or airport employees.