Passengers with Disabilities Still Fly Unfriendly Skies

Passengers with Disabilities Still Fly Unfriendly Skies

June 2, 2021

More than thirty years after passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, airlines are decades behind buses, trains, and subways in accommodating passengers with disabilities. This discrepancy is not just a matter of convenience, but of fundamental dignity.

Congress passed the ADA back in 1990 to prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities, including on both public and privately operated transportation. But the law exempted air carriers. They were supposed to be barred from biased treatment by the 1986 Air Carrier Access Act, but that law has often proved insufficient.

Free to ignore the ADA and the rules other businesses take for granted, airlines could have voluntarily developed more inclusive policies over three decades. They chose not to. Consider some of the challenges disabled passengers face:

  • Airlines lose 26 wheelchairs a day, and damage thousands more every year.
  • Wheelchairs are often disassembled by baggage personnel, leaving passengers without a way to reassemble them on arrival.
  • Electric wheelchairs can cost upwards of $30,000, yet airlines are allowed to treat them like suitcases.
  • In 2012, a Hawaiian man who was a wheelchair user was forced to crawl off his plane and across the tarmac because the airline could not provide him with the necessary help.
  • In 2015, a Washington, D.C. man with cerebral palsy had to crawl off his plane after a five-hour flight because airline staff never brought the narrow, airline wheelchair they were supposed to provide.
  • Just last month, a disabled Air Force veteran was left to sit on the floor of a jetway for 45 minutes because his airline lost track of his wheelchair reservation.

For people who need wheelchairs, they are practically extensions of their bodies. A lost or damaged chair can immediately steal its owner’s mobility and independence.

Airlines didn’t catch up on their own. That’s why Sen. Tammy Baldwin and Rep. Jim Langevin — who, as the first quadriplegic Member of Congress, has endured the indignities of current policy firsthand — have introduced the Air Carrier Access Amendments Act of 2021. The goal is to finally bring equal access to air travel.

The bill would introduce new measures to enforce ACAA rules, including fines on airlines that violate them, defined mandatory accessibility standards, and removal of physical barriers to access on airplanes.

Travelers with disabilities have waited long enough. To get airlines to act, it seems Congress must act first.