By Joseph H. Huber

Current Status of Air Travel for Those with Disabilities Achievements and Remaining IssuesCartoon airplane

As we enter the new millennium, air travel for individuals with disabilities can no longer be thought of as a frill, but an essential means of transportation for those desiring to lead a productive and active life. Currently, the federal government is increasing efforts to encourage companies to hire more working age adults with disabilities. Coupled with an increasing global economy, the ability of employees with disabilities to travel by air is not only critical to their being hired, but could ultimately affect their success and upward mobility.

Further, air travelers with disabilities are now being recognized as an important and growing niche market within the travel industry. Today, travel agencies and tourist magazines and newspapers frequently highlight accessible sightseeing and vacationing destinations such as theme, state and national parks; historical sites; resorts; and cruises and sporting events.

Although the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) has been a law for more than 13 years, travelers with disabilities continue to encounter problems and frequently find air travel unnecessarily humiliating and upsetting. Most recently, three formal complaints were filed with the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) by air travelers with disabilities. These individuals alleged that Continental Airlines Inc. violated the ACAA and DOT rules. The issue focused on the carrier's apparent failure to provide adequate physical assistance to travelers who use wheelchairs to board aircraft. The incidents caused two travelers to suffer bruises. Continental was also charged with failure to stow passenger wheelchairs in the aircraft cabin. Instead, the air line placed the wheelchairs in the cargo hold (Franz Soni, Paul Tobin and Angelo Bianco, and Gerard M. Kelly v. Continental Airlines, Inc.).

The DOT also obtained records of complaints filed against Continental between January 1997 and March 1998. These records reflected numerous violations of the Department's rules guaranteeing access to air transportation. According to DOT, the filings dealt with-13 instances of stranding passengers with disabilities aboard an aircraft or in terminal areas; approximately 100 instances of alleged negligent handling of passengers in wheelchairs or failing to provide wheelchair services promptly; and nine instances of failure to adequately respond to written complaints from passengers with disabilities.

The DOT seeks a $250,000 civil penalty against the carrier for these violations, as well as an additional $1,100 for each similar violation revealed in the course of the investigation. The complaint is scheduled to be heard by a DOT administrative law judge (DOT 126-99, filed August 16, 1999).

Current Initiatives

The DOT is continuing efforts to secure accessible air transportation to all. For example, the DOT's monthly Air Travel Consumer Report is for the first time presenting a tabulation of the complaints filed against specific airlines regarding treatment of passengers with disabilities. The report shows passengers filed a total of 215 disability complaints from January to June 1999, up from 160 during the same period in 1998 (DOT 122-99, August 11, 1999),

In an effort to evaluate the effectiveness of federal enforcement of disability civil rights laws, the National Council on Disability (NCD) released a groundbreaking report documenting the ineffective enforcement of the ACAA since the law's passage. The report, Enforcing the Civil Rights of Air Travelers with Disabilities: Recommendations for the Department of Transportation and Congress, "... contains implications that passengers with disabilities encounter an enforcement effort that is both inconsistent and limited in scope," noted NCD chairperson Marca Bristo. "People with disabilities continue to encounter frequent, significant violations of their civil rights (NCD #99-226, March 18, 1999)."

The NCD's report presents recommendations to DOT and Congress for far-reaching changes to the ACAA to assure improved access to the nation's air travel system for persons with disabilities. Until federal regulations based on NCD recommendations are finalized, the DOT currently offers travelers with disabilities some important advice via a guide entitled New Horizons: Information for the Air Traveler with a Disability (July, 1995).

Historically, air travelers with disabilities faced prejudice, hostility, and even outright denial of their right to travel. Much progress has been made over the past two decades, but a number of accessibility issues remain unresolved. These include but are not limited to--

Hopefully, these issues will remain on the front burner until complete compliance and improved monitoring of the ACAA is achieved.