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Did you know? Disability rules change after take-off

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Let’s face it: flying can be tough for people with disabilities. The pre-flight process of transferring from one’s regular wheelchair to an airline’s super-skinny aisle chair, then over to an airplane seat – and doing the whole thing in reverse after landing – ranges from difficult to uncomfortable to painful, from sketchy too scary to downright dangerous.  

a photo of a plane taking off on a runaway in blue skies and you can see the tarmac

A lack of evacuation procedures can strand passengers with disabilities on-board when everyone else has left over inflatable slides and onto wings. Problems clearly abound. If you are familiar with disability law, you might have asked yourself: Why don’t the airlines have to meet all the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)? It’s an important question, as the The ADA governs most things around accessibility for places, services, and other public accommodations – and airplanes just don’t fit its requirements around wide doors and aisle-ways, large bathrooms, and equal access to evacuation. So, what’s the deal? Why don’t airlines and airplanes meet ADA standards? The answer is simple: because they don’t have to. You see, airlines are regulated by a whole different federal law called the Air Carrier Accessibility Act (ACAA) of 1986 and its updated guidelines. The ACAA covers airlines, airports, airplanes, and the services provided by them, from loading to take off to landing and disembarking. For example, ACAA rules are vague regarding exactly what kind of help airline staff can provide for transfers, but in some cases limit “lifting” or carrying passengers – even if that means passengers can’t reach lavatories or board airplanes at all. There are also no standards for reliably evacuating passengers with disabilities in an emergency, meaning that the most vulnerable travelers may be left behind to wait for emergency personnel, if any arrive in time. 

Given all of these problems and the other barriers they create, there is an important second question about the ACAA: why do we even have it when the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) addresses transit like buses and taxis – and shouldn’t the ADA cover air travel just fine? There are a few answers. First, the original ACAA was passed four years before the ADA and simply stayed on-the-books even after the ADA came to be in 1990. The ACAA also includes international flights into and out of the United States, going beyond the ADA’s domestic rules, which is actually one good reason to keep the ACAA (even with its limits). Finally, the physical nature of airplanes and airports – with narrow airplane doors and aisleways, limited room for lavatories, and some uneven airplane entryways – mean that it may be difficult-to-impossible to implement ADA-level accessibility for air travel. It’s an unfortunate reality, but a reality, nonetheless. ACAA and its regulations should clearly be updated going forward, but we should also do everything possible to provide equitable, safe transportation given current situations.

ADAPTS aims to help with at least a few of the missing gaps: smoothly moving down aisleways (onto the plane and toward the bathroom), evacuating in time, and even getting up and down stairways at smaller airports. Check out our free resource videos and be prepared. Minutes matter! 

Try taking ADAPTS baseline travel safety survey, here