Know Your Rights: Flying With Disabilities

These days flying can be stressful all around. Hurrying up only to wait, increasingly small spaces, and inching your way through a crowded line at a security checkpoint are just a few of the hassles to look forward to on the day of your flight—and that’s assuming all goes to plan. Lost luggage and delays may also come up unexpectedly.

However, when you’re flying with disabilities, each of these inconveniences can grow into a truly difficult situation. At times the process becomes impossible, usually when an employee of an airline or airport—usually unintentionally—doesn’t understand how to deal with people with disabilities and doesn’t know how to handle your requests.

For this reason, it is critical that each disabled traveler know his or her rights inside and out. This is our mini guide to flying with disabilities; its goal is to empower people with disabilities who are traveling by air.

The Air Carrier Access Act

Congress passed the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) to prevent discrimination against people with disabilities during air travel (find the Act at 14 CFR 382). The ACAA requires that all flights that begin or end in the US, whether domestic and international, must accommodate people with disabilities. The ACAA defines a person with a disability as follows:

“a person who has a physical or mental impairment that, on a permanent or temporary basis, substantially limits one or more major life activity, has a record of such an impairment, or is regarded as having such an impairment.”

This is almost exactly the same as the ADA definition of a person with a disability, with one major difference. The ACAA definition includes even temporary disabilities, like a recent knee surgery that requires the use of a walker. Airlines cannot deny access to people with disabilities or limit the number of people with disabilities on any given flight, with only three exceptions:

  • if the presence of the disabled person or people would violate a safety rule of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA);
  • if the presence of the disabled person or people would endanger the safety or health of other passengers; or
  • on planes with fewer than 19 seats which lack boarding chairs or lifts that can adapt to their space limitations.

ACAA accommodations must be consistent with providing safe travel for all passengers, and must also be free. This doesn’t mean they have to accommodate you in any way you desire, but it does mean that they are held to a basic set of standards. This also doesn’t mean that you have to agree with the accommodations they come up with. Here’s how it works.

Even if an airline offers you an accommodation, you do not have to accept it. Take pre-boarding, for example. Airlines are legally required to offer pre-boarding to any people with disabilities, free of charge. However, people with disabilities are not required to pre-board. You have the right to accept or reject any accommodations; you do not have the right to demand and receive every accommodation you might want.

Airlines are not required to provide medical oxygen for in-flight use, a hook-up to the plane’s electrical system for a respirator, the ability to carry an incubator, or stretcher travel accommodations. If they do choose to make these accommodations, they may charge reasonable fees for them. For example, if you require extra seats for a stretcher or for your body, they can charge for those seats. They can also require advanced notice as described below.

Aside from the extra seats mentioned above, airlines cannot charge disabled passengers for providing equipment, facilities, or services required by the ACAA. If the airline’s reservations website is not accessible, it must have an accessible alternative for people with disabilities that costs the same amount to use. That alternative must make the same prices and discounts available to users.

Preparing to travel

As you get ready for your flight, here are a few things to consider.

Pre-flight notification

Typically, notification to the airline pre-flight is not required. This means that people with disabilities do not need to notify the airline in advance that they are flying, except in certain specific cases.

You do need to notify the airline 48 hours in advance and check in a minimum of one hour before the normal check in time if:

  • you require a service animal on a flight segment scheduled to take eight hours or more;
  • you need to travel by stretcher;
  • you are using any power wheelchair on an aircraft with fewer than 60 seats;
  • you need to hook-up to the in-flight oxygen system;
  • you are part of a group of ten or more people with disabilities who make reservations and travel as a group;
  • you are traveling with an emotional support service animal;
  • you require an on-board wheelchair on an aircraft with more than 60 seats that does not have an accessible lavatory;
  • you are traveling with a device with special batteries such as a power wheelchair; or
  • you or someone in your party has both severe vision and hearing impairments.

Unless one of those conditions applies to you, no pre-flight notification is required. You cannot be denied access for lack of notification under any other circumstances except those described below.

If you do provide adequate notice under the circumstances, the airline must provide the accommodation or service, make sure that they undertake the administrative services and reservations, and provide timely notice to any service providers needed to make the accommodation happen. If you don’t provide notice, the airline must still make reasonable efforts to accommodate you without delaying the flight.

Accessibility information

Airlines are required to provide accessibility information about the specific aircraft planned for each flight, including:

  • the locations, including row and seat number, of seats with movable armrests;
  • the locations, including row and seat number, of seats that are unavailable to people with disabilities, such as seats in the exit rows;
  • limitations on available accommodations, including the availability of level-entry boarding;
  • limitations concerning bay and cabin storage facilities;
  • lavatory accessibility; and
  • services to people with disabilities that are and are not available.

This information as well as all services must be available through voice relay, TTY, or other text telephone technology at no extra charge during normal hours that are open to the public. TTY numbers must be listed along with all other phone numbers, and if the airline does not have a TTY, they must explain how TTY users can reach them.

The need for an attendant

People with disabilities are typically not required to travel with attendants. Airlines may require an attendant to assist a person with a disability during travel in case of an emergency only if the airline staff determines one or more of the following factors are accurate:

  • The passenger cannot understand or respond appropriately to safety instructions; and/or
  • The passenger’s mobility impairment is sufficiently severe to render him or her unable to assist in his or her own evacuation from the aircraft; and/or
  • The passenger has both severe vision and hearing impairments which prevent him or her from receiving in-flight personnel instructions.

If you are traveling alone and the airline determines that you require an attendant, denying you the ability to travel is not necessarily the first or only option. You may ask another passenger to assist you in case of emergency, or the airline can appoint a staff member who is off-duty but traveling on the flight.

However, the airline may determine that you need an attendant without providing you with one. They are not required to supply an attendant, so if you feel any of these factors might apply to you, plan ahead and ensure that you have an attendant.

In cases where the airline and the passenger with disabilities disagree—in other words, when the passenger believes he or she can travel independently but the airline does not think so—the airline cannot charge the passenger for the attendant’s travel costs. However, as stated above, the airline does not have to provide or locate an attendant. On the other hand, when the passenger elects to travel with an attendant but the airline does not required one, the airline can charge for the cost of the attendant’s travel.

Concern over issues surrounding personal care, such as assistance eating or using the lavatory, is not enough to trigger a requirement for an attendant. It is the responsibility of each airline to train employees on disability issues and relevant laws to ensure that they do not make this error. On the other hand, the airline and its staff do not have to provide these services and can freely tell passengers that.

The medical certificate requirement

In most cases, a medical certificate is not required. A medical certificate is a written statement explaining that the person with disabilities is capable of safely flying without requiring extraordinary medical care. This statement comes from the person’s doctor. However, simply having disabilities is not enough to trigger the need for such a statement.

The airline should not request a medical certificate unless the person:

  • Is in an incubator or on a stretcher;
  • Requires medical oxygen during the flight; or
  • Has a communicable or contagious disease that could pose a direct threat to the safety or health of other passengers; or
  • Has a medical condition which causes the airline to have reasonable doubt that the person can complete the flight safely, without requiring extraordinary medical assistance.

The first two are fairly clear, but the third and fourth rule leave a lot of room for interpretation. Unfortunately, in some cases airline personnel, who are tasked with making these decisions in the context of keeping all passengers safe, may lack a nuanced understanding of disabilities.

In terms of the third rule about diseases, airlines cannot discriminate unless there is a direct public health threat present. The threat must be clear based on directives issued by public health authorities such as the World Health Organization, the Public Health Service, or the US Centers for Disease Control. It is not enough that the disease offend or bother others.

Airline personnel must assess the situation based on how readily the disease can be transmitted via casual contact in an airplane and how severe the potential health consequences are. The common cold is easily transmissible on an airplane, but it does not present health consequences that are severe. A person with a cold would not qualify as presenting a direct threat.HIV/AIDS carries with it very severe health consequences, but is not readily transmissible via casual contact. Therefore, someone with HIV/AIDS does not pose a direct threat.

SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) is a good example of a disease that is easily transmissible via casual contact on an airplane and also has severe health consequences. Airline personnel would correctly assess someone with SARS as posing a direct threat.

In every case being prepared—whether or not you have disabilities—can head trouble off at the pass. Although you may not meet the requirements for needing to notify the airline before you travel, it cannot hurt to do so if you have any doubt about getting the accommodations you need. And if you’re concerned that an airline might insist on an attendant for you even though you don’t need one, carry a letter from a doctor just in case.

A special note for people traveling with emotional support service dogs: always carry your doctor’s letter with you when you travel, and you must notify the airline at least 48 hours in advance when you travel with your service animal. Your letter must be on the professional letterhead of a mental health care provider, and it must be no more than one year old. For more details about the contents of this kind of letter, read this.

The regulations for these requirements can be found here. Other kinds of service animals are not subjected to these rules, but emotional support animals are, probably because of a perceived problem of “faking” coupled with a broader misunderstanding of “invisible” disabilities.

On the day of travel: Getting through the airport

You’ve packed, prepared everything you’ll need, and now it’s the big day. Here are some tips for making your way through the airport with disabilities.

Escorts

In most airports escorts are available upon request. Individual airlines may offer qualified escort employees, and airports may also permit unticketed escorts, especially caregivers and parents, to assist a person with a disability in getting through security. If you are a caregiver, parent, or other unticketed person hoping to escort someone with disabilities, you can request a permit, often called a gate pass or escort pass, from the check-in counter of the airline. This should allow you to pass through security and assist someone with disabilities.

Security

TSA suggests that people with disabilities and special needs contact them 72 hours in advance of traveling to find out what to expect from the process. They also recommend that people with disabilities carry the TSA notification card which merely states that the person has a disability, gives a general sense of what that disability is, and acknowledges that having a disability does not exempt one from security screening.

The TSA rules for security screening of people with disabilities look like this.

Always inform the TSA officer first:

“Inform the TSA officer of your ability to walk or stand independently before screening. You may provide the officer with the TSA notification card or other medical documentation to describe your condition.”

“Inform the TSA officer if you have a prosthetic, cast, brace or support appliance and require assistance with the screening process. You may provide the officer with the TSA notification card or other medical documentation to describe your condition.”

Devices, supports, and accessories are subject to screening:

“You are not required to remove your shoes if you have disabilities and medical conditions. However, your shoes must undergo additional screening including visual/physical inspection as well as explosives trace detection testing of the footwear. You can request to be seated during this portion of the screening.”

“The cast, brace, or support appliance is subject to additional screening, which may require you to remove it for X-ray screening.”

“Walkers, crutches, canes or other mobility aids and devices must undergo X-ray screening. A TSA officer will inspect the item if it cannot fit through the X-ray. Notify the TSA officer if you need to be immediately reunited with the device after it is screened by X-ray.”

“TSA officers will screen wheelchairs and scooters to include the seat cushions and any non-removable pouches or fanny packs. Items will be tested for traces of explosives, and removable items will undergo X-ray screening.”

Pat downs are the alternative for people who cannot walk through screeners:

“If you are able to stand with your arms above your head five to seven seconds without support, you may undergo screening through advanced imaging technology or the walk-through metal detector if you are able to walk through without support.”

“If you can neither stand nor walk, you will undergo a pat-down screening while seated. If you can stand but cannot walk, you may stand near the wheelchair or scooter and undergo a pat-down screening. A pat-down procedure also is used if you alarm the metal detector or advanced imaging technology.”

“You will not be required to remove your prostheses; however, they are subject to additional screening, which may require you to lift, raise, or lower your clothing. If the screening will involve a sensitive area, a private screening will be provided and a disposable drape will be available upon request. You may also request a private screening at any time.”

Additional TSA guidelines include:

  • Requests for private screening must be granted in enough time for the passenger to make his or her flight.
  • People with disabilities who go through security without an alarm cannot be subjected to special screening procedures.
  • People with disabilities who activate security will be subject to the same process of further screening as any other passenger.

The TSA Cares phone helpline, 855-787-2227, is intended to help travelers with disabilities prepare before they arrive at the airport. Travelers with disabilities who call TSA Cares can get specific details about relevant security screening procedures and coordinate checkpoint support at the airport as needed.

In the terminal

Anyone can move freely in the airport terminal. Disability is not a reason to restrict the movement of any passenger, so you cannot be required to remain in a certain place in the terminal, even if you’re waiting for assistance.

Airlines cannot make you sign a release or waiver of liability concerned damage to or loss of your wheelchair or other assistive devices. In fact, you cannot be made to sign any sort of waiver about your accommodations. The airline can take note of any existing damage to your assistive devices just as they do luggage, but not to any greater degree.

All US airports are required to be accessible to people with disabilities. The rules for accessibility are the same as those set forth in Title III of the ADA. Foreign airports with flights that originate in the US must also be accessible.

Accessibility includes the provision of relief areas for service animals, and captioning on all televisions and other audiovisual displays. When devices such as kiosks are not accessible, airlines must accommodate people with disabilities by assisting them to use the kiosks or allowing them to move to the front of the line.

Airlines must assist passengers with disabilities in getting around the terminal, from gate to gate, from vehicle to security, and otherwise making their way around and through the airport. This includes helping the passenger to get to and use all functional areas of the terminal, and the rest room. Airlines must also help people with disabilities carry their luggage along these routes.

Onboard

Today’s planes are short on space, and this can be even more trying for people with disabilities. Here are some tips for navigating these situations.

Help getting on and off the plane

There are a number of rules for all airlines regarding assisting people with disabilities in getting on and off planes:

  • Airline staff must be properly trained and available to assist people with disabilities board and exit the aircraft.
  • This process may include the services of employees as well as the use of accessible motorized carts, ground wheelchairs, on-board wheelchairs, boarding wheelchairs, and mechanical lifts or ramps.
  • At any commercial service airport in the US with 10,000 or more annual flights where boarding and deplaning using accessible passenger lounges or level-entry loading bridges or is not available, the use of ramps, lifts, or other suitable devices must be employed to assist passengers with disabilities in boarding and deplaning.
  • Airline employees cannot pick up and carry passengers on and off the plane.
  • Passengers who have requested assistance may not be left unattended for more than 30 minutes by connecting, deplaning, or enplaning assistance personnel in boarding wheelchairs, ground wheelchairs, or other devices in which the passengers are not independently mobile.

Seat assignments

Seating choices must be made without regard to disability except when FAA rules allow for disability to the basis for the assignment. A person with a disability cannot be excluded from any seat or required to sit in a particular seat except as provided by FAA rules; for example, a person with a disability cannot sit in an emergency exit row.

Passengers who cannot easily transfer over a fixed aisle armrest must be seated in a row with a movable aisle armrest. Furthermore, airline employees must be trained on proper transfer techniques. Passengers with service animals must be given a bulkhead seat at their request. Passengers with immobilized or fused legs must be given a bulkhead or other seat that provides more legroom to accommodate their disability.

Service animals

People with disabilities must be allowed to travel with their service animals. This includes emotional support service animals, although people with disabilities must provide documentation and advanced notice for these animals as described above. While other service animals do not trigger the same documentation and notice requirements, airline personnel are allowed to ask questions to establish that the animals are service animals and not pets.

On flights which do not have room for service animals without blocking the seats, exits, or aisles, airline personnel must first try to accommodate the passenger and his or her animal in a different seat within the same cabin. If this does not work, the animal can be made to travel in the cargo-hold.

Safety briefing

Airline employees must provide people with disabilities with a safety briefing and all trip information that is made available to other passengers. Personnel may offer individual briefings for passengers whose disabilities prevent them from accessing the information from the general safety briefing. Personnel must conduct an individual safety briefing for anyone who will need the help of another person to exit during an emergency, along with that person’s attendant.

When airline employees do provide individual briefings, they must do so as discreetly and inconspicuously as possible; typically this takes place during the pre-boarding process of the passenger. Personnel cannot “test” the person with disabilities on their mastery of safety briefing information beyond how they test all passengers about the information.

In-flight accommodations

Airline personnel must provide passengers with disabilities with the following accommodations upon request:

  • Assistance moving to and from seats during boarding and deplaning process;
  • Assistance in preparing to eat, such as identifying food and opening packages, but not assistance with actual eating;
  • Assistance with any on-board wheelchair present moving to and from the lavatory;
  • Assistance moving to and from the lavatory so long as this does not include carrying or lifting;
  • Assistance stowing and retrieving carry-on items, including assistive devices;
  • Timely, effective communication of all information given to other passengers for passengers with auditory and/or visual impairments vision impairments such as connecting gates, flight delays, on-board services, and weather.

Airline personnel are not required to provide assistance with actual eating, assistance with elimination functions at the seat or in the lavatory, or medical services.

Mobility aids on the plane

As long as they can be properly stowed somewhere on board, airlines must permit passengers with disabilities to bring the following types of items on board:

  • Manual wheelchairs, including those collapsible wheelchairs and folding wheelchairs;
  • Mobility aids such as crutches, canes, and walkers;
  • Canes used as assistive devices for the visually impaired;
  • Prescription medication delivery devices such as auto-injectors and syringes;
  • Vision enhancing devices;
  • FAA-approved portable oxygen concentrators (POC);
  • Respirators and ventilators that comply with applicable security, safety, and hazardous materials rules and use non-spillable batteries.

Assistive devices cannot count against your carry-on item limit.

Passengers with disabilities who use wheelchairs and request preboarding must have access to the priority stowage area for their wheelchairs. This use of the stowage area takes precedence over other items belonging to other passengers or the crew. If the disabled passenger does not preboard, he or she can still access this stowage area, but only on the same first-come, first-served basis as the rest of the passengers.

If the fully assembled wheelchair is too big for the space, but can fit if partially disassembled without tools, airline personnel must remove the parts and stow the wheelchair. The other parts must then be stowed in the carry-on luggage areas.

If mobility devices cannot be stowed onboard due to lack of space, they are given priority in the baggage compartment. Airline personnel must ensure that mobility devices are checked and returned in a timely fashion, and that they are returned as close to the aircraft door as possible, unless the passenger requests otherwise or doing so would violate regulations governing the transportation of hazardous materials or transportation security.

Airlines must accept power wheelchairs and power scooters used by people with disabilities—including their batteries—unless they cannot based on the size of the baggage compartment or aircraft worthiness considerations. People using these power mobility devices should check in at least one hour earlier than is recommended for the general public. If the passenger checks in later, the airline must still carry the device if it is possible to do so without delaying the flight by making a reasonable effort.

As long as there is a manufacturer label that says the power wheelchair’s battery is non-spillable, the carrier cannot require that the battery be removed. Batteries that are spillable do not need to be removed if they can be loaded, secured, and stored in an upright position. If this is not possible, the airline must remove the battery and package it separately. Batteries that are damaged or leaking should not be transported.

All air carriers who conduct passenger services (except for on-demand air taxi operators) must allow any passenger with a disability on any aircraft with a capacity of more than 19 seats to use a continuous positive airway pressure machine (CPAP), an FAA-approved portable oxygen concentrator (POC), a respirator, or a ventilator, unless:

  • the device fails to meet FAA requirements for medical portable electronic devices AND does not display the relevant manufacturer’s label; or
  • the device cannot be used and stowed in the passenger cabin consistent with regulations from the FAA, TSA, and PHMSA (Pipeline Hazardous Materials Safety Administration).

When something goes wrong: Protecting your rights

Airlines can refuse transportation if they determine that a would-be passenger’s presence would endanger the safety or health of other passengers, or that transporting the passenger would violate the safety rules of the FAA. This usually intersects with the rights of people with disabilities when airline personnel determine that a passenger cannot assist themselves adequately.

Airline personnel cannot ask about your specific disability. They can, however, ask questions about your ability to perform specific tasks and functions that are directly related to air travel, such as walking through the airport, boarding, or deplaning. Having difficulty with one or all of these tasks is not enough for a carrier to refuse you the right to travel. Instead, the airline must be able to specifically point to how your presence on board would affect the safety of all of the passengers.

Unfortunately, they can deny you the ability to board, and they don’t have to give you the reason until the next day. If you think the airline is violating your rights and/or breaking the law, and you have been unable to resolve the matter after discussing it with airline personnel, take other steps to protect yourself.

Ask to speak with the Complaints Resolution Official (CRO)

All airlines are required to have a Complaints Resolution Official (CRO). This is someone who is always available immediately to resolve disagreements. You have the right to speak to a CRO, who has authority to resolve complaints on behalf of the airline, if you feel the airline is not following the ACAA rules.

It is the job of the CRO to know the ACAA’s requirements and its implementing regulations inside and out. They are also tasked with knowing each of the airline’s disability procedures. The CRO has the authority to resolve complaints and speak for the airline, and can overrule decisions made by other personnel, with the exception of decisions based on safety considerations made by the pilot-in-command of an aircraft.

If the CRO receives a complaint before the airline takes action (or fails to take action) resulting in a violation of the ACAA, the CRO is required to take any action or direct others to take any action needed to ensure compliance. If there has already been a violation and the CRO agrees, he or she must set forth the facts in a written statement including details of what steps the airline proposes to take in response to the violation.

If the CRO finds that there was no violation of the ACAA, he or she must provide a written statement including the facts and the reasons for his or her decision. This written statement must inform the passenger about his or her right to pursue enforcement from the Department of Transportation (DOT). Ideally the statement should be provided to the passenger on the spot at the airport, but in any case it must be provided within 30 calendar days.

Ask the CRO to confirm his/her decision with the pilot

Because the pilot does have the last word on safety matters, you can further protect yourself by asking the CRO to confirm his or her decision with the pilot. You may even force a reconsideration of the matter.

Complain in writing to the carrier

You should complain in writing immediately if your issue is not resolved, but in any cause you must complain within 45 days or the airline is no longer required to respond. Written complaints can be transmitted in any form, including electronic message, email, fax, or letter. In your complaint, state whether you contacted a CRO, and provide that person’s name, the date you contacted them, and any written response you received.

The airline must respond within 30 days with a written response admitting or denying that a violation occurred. The response must include a summary of the facts. If they admit a violation occurred, the response should also detail the corrective steps that will be taken. If they deny that a violation occurred, the response should set forth the reasons for their decision. Any response must also inform you of the right to pursue enforcement by the DOT.

Contact the DOT

If you are not satisfied with the airline’s response, contact the DOT’s consumer protection hotline at 1-800-778-4838 (voice) or 1-800-455-9880 (TTY). It is open from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM Eastern time, Monday through Friday, except federal holidays. The hotline offers consumer information about the rights of disabled air travelers.

If you think that an airline has violated the ACAA or any of its implementing regulations, you must seek assistance or file an informal complaint with the DOT within six months of the incident. You can do this two ways:

Visit the DOT’s Office of Aviation Enforcement and Proceedings – Aviation Consumer Protection Division at www.dot.gov/airconsumer/file-consumer-complaint and select “Disability and Discrimination Complaints,” or

Write to

Aviation Consumer Protection Division

Attn: C-75-D

U.S. Department of Transportation

1200 New Jersey Ave, SE

Washington, DC 20590

The bottom line

No one wants to feel unwelcome, or that they can’t freely travel as they wish. Know your rights before you fly, and plan ahead when you’re traveling. This is sound advice for anyone, but it is especially important for people with disabilities.