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Traveling With a Disability: What Are Your Rights?

Unless you’re in a premium class, air travel is a struggle no matter what your age, and the older you get, the tougher the struggle becomes. With all the current press coverage of new “travelers’ rights” proposals, a quick look at specific rights for travelers who may need a bit of extra help is timely. Along with most of the rest of the travel industry, airlines seem to view “disabled” and “travelers who need assistance” narrowly as “using a wheelchair,” and “accessible” as “accessible to someone in a wheelchair.” The overall needs of those travelers are governed by the Americans with Disability Act, as augmented for air travelers by the Air Carrier Access Act. If you have a disability:

  • Airlines may not refuse to transport you, except if carrying you would be “inimical to the safety of the flight,” for most of you, a rather remote possibility.
  • Airlines cannot demand advance notice of that disability, although they can require 48 hours notice if you require special equipment or preparations.
  • In most cases, airlines can’t demand that someone else accompany you. And if an airline decides you need an attendant, it must buy the ticket.
  • Airlines can’t require that you sit in a specific seat, as long as you’re physically capable of sitting there, but it can refuse to allow you in an exit-row seat if you can’t perform the requisite emergency functions.
  • Airlines must help you, as needed, with boarding, deplaning, and making connections. If your flight does board through a level jetway, the airline must provide a ramp or a mechanical lift device.
  • Airlines must also help you in the cabin, although you can’t ask for extensive special services. You are allowed to bring and use your own oxygen.
  • Airlines must accept your wheelchair—even one of those bulky battery-operated jobs—as checked baggage, without adding any charge for whatever special packaging the airline decides to use.
  • Airlines must allow you to take collapsible wheelchairs and other assist devices into the cabin not count them against your carry-on allowance.
  • For “new” aircraft—ordered after April 5, 1990, or delivered after April 5, 1992—those with 30 or more seats must have movable armrests on at least half the aisle seats, and new twin-aisle planes must have accessible lavatories.
  • If an airplane of 60 or more seats has an accessible lavatory, it must carry an onboard wheelchair; if it does not have an accessible lavatory, the airline must provide one on the plane (with 48 hours notice).

Airports, too, are required to assist travelers with wheelchairs through security and other airport facilities. Some of these services require 48-hour advance notice to the airline. For more information, the DOT has a useful summary of the rules.

Overall, you’ll get lots of help if you need it—and ask in advance. Still, your best bet is to minimize your chances of a problem:

  • You can’t always expect an accessible lavatory on your flight: Unfortunately, U.S. domestic airlines still fly a lot of “old” single-aisle planes without accessible lavatories.
  • Avoid small regional jets and turboprops when you can: They usually board through steep, narrow self-contained stairs that are tough for anybody to negotiate.
  • Ask for assistance even if you’re not bound to a wheelchair—if you see you can’t comfortably handle a set of stairs or such. For a long airport schlep, ask for a ride on one of those “golf carts” most airports have for that purpose.
  • And although I couldn’t find anything on any major lines’ websites, it is my understanding that at least some lines will provide the equivalent of unaccompanied minor care to adult travelers suffering from Alzheimer’s or other cognitive conditions that might preclude fully independent travel.

The best way to avoid disappointment and hassle is to arrange what you need in advance. For more information, visit Access-Able, Disabled Travelers, and Flying with Disability.

Do you have any tips for traveling with disabilities? Share your thoughts, experiences, and advice by submitting a comment below!

Note: The Airports Council International, the airports’ trade association, asked me to clarify two points in my report on services for disabled travelers: (1) the wheelchair service provided at U.S. airports is the responsibility of individual airlines, not the airport itself, and (2) passengers can currently take their own oxygen on board in accumulators, but not bottles.

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