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Traveling with disabilities: Tips for air travel

People with disabilities or seniors with reduced mobility, who require more time and special accommodations when traveling, can expect more accessibility and greater comfort as travel companies become more in tune with their needs.

In fact, the travel industry may accelerate the process of change in light of a recent survey that suggests it is in the financially ailing industry’s interest to meet the needs of the disabled. Released in January 2003, this detailed study by the Open Doors Organization, the Travel Industry Association of America (TIA), and the Society for Accessible Travel and Hospitality (SATH), predicts that disabled U.S. travelers could spend $27 billion per year on travel if properly accommodated. Presently, disabled travelers spend only $3.3 million on travel.

Also, recent judgments by the Department of Transportation (DOT) favoring the disabled in cases against major airlines suggest that the government is willing to actively support disabled consumers. On March 24, the DOT fined US Airways $550,000 for several violations of the Air Carrier Access Act, including leaving disabled passengers in wheelchairs or on aircraft by themselves for prolonged periods and failing to respond properly to complaints. Earlier in March, American Airlines was fined $1.2 million for similar violations.

However, as travel companies work to catch up with the regulations and adapt to new needs, it’s important to know what your rights are as a disabled traveler and what resources are available to help make your travel experience as smooth and enjoyable as possible.

The airlines’ responsibilities to disabled travelers

If you are handicapped or require a wheelchair, you have as much a right to travel by air and be treated fairly as any other passenger. The government’s Air Carrier Access Act prohibits airlines operating within the U.S. from discriminating against the disabled, and requires them to make accommodations for special-needs travelers, at no additional cost to the traveler, as long as the medical condition is stable and not likely to worsen during travel.

For a list of steps taken by the U.S. government to ensure the civil rights of people with disablities when traveling by air, visit the Department of Transportation website. Some of these rights and regulations are:

  • If requested, an airline must assist a disabled traveler needing help before boarding and after disembarking a plane, including providing assistance at security checkpoints. [Note: Many airlines will allow you to select a wheelchair option when booking online.]
  • Carry-on bag limits do not apply to medical supplies and devices. Airlines must allow the transport of wheelchairs, including battery-operated scooters, except where the cargo compartment size isn’t large enough (usually only a problem on small aircraft).
  • New “widebody” jets must have a wheelchair accessible bathroom and have an onboard wheelchair specially-designed to fit down the aircraft’s aisles.
  • In the event of a problem during air travel, you can contact the airline’s Complaints Resolution Officer (CRO), who is required to be available either by phone or in person at the airport all times. An airline must respond to any written complaint within 30 days.

For a complete list of these requirements, read “New Horizons: Information for the Air Traveler with a Disability” on the FAA Office of Civil Rights website.

At present, not all airports are fully handicapped accessible, though they are required to be in compliance with the American’s with Disablities Act in a few years. Among many requirements, airports will have to provide accessible parking, medical facilities, level-entry boarding ramps, clear signage indicating the locations of important facilities and services, and more. Major airports will also have to provide shuttle service to and from the terminal, and people movers within the airport.

What you can do to help yourself

Aside from knowing what to expect from the airline and the airports, disabled travelers should also take precautionary steps on their own to ensure a smooth trip. Here are some general guidelines to follow:

  • The Society for Accessible Travel & Hospitality, (SATH), recommends that you make air travel reservations as far in advance as possible, and let the airline know of any special assistance required at least 48 hours prior to departure.
  • If you book through a travel agent, SATH advises that you tell the agent to specify your travel plans as SSR (Special Service Required) or OSI (Other Service Information).
  • Arrive at the airport at least two to three hours beforehand so that you are not rushed and have time to preboard (if you wish to preboard.)
  • To protect against damage or loss to devices like wheelchairs, remove detachable parts and make sure they are labeled with your name and address.
  • Check the websites of individual air carriers and individual airports to see if they have specific information for disabled travelers. Some airlines, including America West provide more detailed information on their websites.

General resources for disabled travelers

Countless associations, travel agencies, and other groups exist worldwide to assist and advocate for disabled travelers, and many have websites with free detailed information. Some of the best include:

  • SATH: Aside from advocating for new regulations and working with travel companies to increase accessibility, this nonprofit provides tips and information on disabled travel for consumers. It even publishes a magazine for disabled travelers called Open World, which includes inspiring travel stories, details on accessible destinations, and legislative updates.
  • Access-Able Travel Source: This website is a clearinghouse of information on accessible travel. You can search a world database of destinations for information on accessible accommodations, attractions, tours, and more. You can also search for travel agents that work with special needs travelers, find accessible cruise ships, and read travel stories and tips submitted by disabled travelers.
  • Travelin’ Talk Network:This website provides a forum for disabled travelers to share information about their hometowns and the places they’ve traveled to help those that might want to visit the area. A lifetime membership costs $19.95 and includes benefits such as discounts of up 50 precent from certain hotels.

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