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Independent Living News & Policy from the National Council on Independent Living

New Airline Regulations: A Disappointing Attempt at Accessibility

Ashton Rosin

In an effort to provide equal access to air transportation for all travelers, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx attempted to make strides this week to ensure accessibility to airline websites and automated airport kiosks for people with disabilities. However, these new rules demonstrate a disappointing effort by the Department of Transportation (DOT) to increase their commitment to the implementation of the Air Carrier Access Act of 1986. The new regulations do not address airline accessibility issues head on because they mandate accessibility progress at a slower rate than what was proposed 2 years ago, a backpedaling of progress. This poor response to the prevalent inaccessibility of airline websites and kiosks does not uphold the Department of Transportation’s pledge to implement equal access for travelers with disabilities.

The updated rules for websites and kiosks require airlines to make web pages that include key travel information and services for people with disabilities accessible within two years. This rule does not do an adequate job of allowing people with disabilities to travel more independently because this regulation only applies to web pages including “core” air travel services and information. The airlines have an additional three years to make all other web pages compliant.

These extensive delays for website accessibility are disconcerting because they create a significantly slower time table for airline accessibility than what was proposed in September 2011 by the Department. Additionally, the rule’s loopholes allow for many exceptions that exempt mobile applications and travel agent websites from needing to become accessible. These exceptions perpetuate barriers that prevent people with disabilities from traveling and highlight the DOT’s false commitments to true travel equality.

It is true that the requirement is not limited to domestic airline companies, but also applies to foreign airlines with websites that are used by individuals who travel outside the U.S. Furthermore, ticket agents must offer web based discounted fares to customers who cannot access their site due to a disability, a policy that will be enacted 180 days after these updated travel rules go into effect. 

However, small airlines (aircrafts with 60 or fewer seats) are exempt from the regulations because the Department is concerned about the fiscal burden placed on these companies. This exemption is problematic because it creates a faulty precedent for accessibility exceptions based on a company’s fiscal situation.

In order to promote independent and accessible traveling for people with disabilities, automated kiosks will also be subject to new rules in addition to airline websites. Automated kiosks installed at U.S. airports that are used to print boarding passes and baggage tags are now required to be accessible to travelers with disabilities. However, airlines do not need to purchase accessible kiosks for another three years, indicating another example of delays that make air travel extremely difficult and inaccessible for people with disabilities. This rule will ensure that at least 25% of all kiosks at every airport are accessible within ten years; exemplifying DOT’s opinion that requiring only a portion of kiosks to be accessible is adequate. It is disheartening to see that the Department does not even attempt to require all kiosks to be accessible.

In addition to websites and kiosks, airlines will now enjoy more flexibility in terms of how they transport manual, folding wheelchairs on aircrafts because they will be able to choose between stowing wheelchairs in a cabin compartment or strapping them to a row of seats, a policy formerly opposed by the DOT. The rule allows airlines to carry up to two wheelchairs in the cabin during a single flight. Closets where wheelchairs are stored must have a sign indicating that there are wheelchairs present. Additionally, wheelchairs will now have storage priority over other baggage on board.

Beyond new accessibility rules, the Department of Transportation fined US Airways $1.2 million after the department investigated 300 complaints filed by passengers relating to incidents in 2011 and 2012 at the Philadelphia International Airport and at Charlotte-Douglas International Airport. The fine was announced because the airline failed to provide adequate wheelchair access to travelers at these airports. This fine serves as one of the largest penalties ever delivered in a disability case, demonstrating the DOT’s increasing commitment to air travel accessibility. By law, airlines are required to provide free and immediate wheelchair access when requested by travelers with disabilities. US Airways failed to do so because they used a combination of electric carts and wheelchairs to transfer passengers between gates. As a result, passengers experienced long delays, missed connections, and were left unattended for long periods of time.

DOT Secretary Foxx seems to believe in making progress towards implementing tangible accessibility initiatives for air travelers, “All air travelers should be treated fairly when they fly, regardless of any disabilities they may have. These new rules build on our past work in ensuring that our air transportation system is accessible for everyone, while balancing both airlines’ and passengers’ need for flexibility.”

However it is clear that his policies do not match his rhetoric as the new airline regulations lack a genuine attempt at improving accessibility in a timely matter and boast loopholes that perpetuate air travel inequality. It is therefore necessary to put pressure on the Department of Transportation to reassess these new regulations by demonstrating our discontent for these policies.

To find out more information, please read the details of the rule on accessible websites and kiosks or attend the U.S. Department of Transportation’s webinar on the Air Carrier Access Act entitled, New DOT Rules to Make Flying Easier for Passengers with Disabilities. The webinar will take place on November 14th from 1:00 – 2:00 pm Eastern and will address the specific aspects of the new rules. You can register online as space is limited.

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