Lessening the Stress of Travel for Travelers with Disabilities

Estate Planning Practice Group

Estate Planning Practice Group

Flying can be a frustrating experience for anyone, but for those with disabilities it is even more difficult. Knowing what rights a passenger with disabilities has is the first step to ensuring the next flight is as stress-free as possible.

Booking a Flight

When booking a flight, travelers with disabilities are generally not required to provide pre-flight notification with a few exceptions:

  1. Traveling by stretcher;
  2. Using an electronic wheelchair (or other device with special batteries); or
  3. Requiring connection to the airplane’s oxygen system during flight.

If none of these categories apply, the airline cannot deny travel for not being informed of a passenger with a disability’s travel plan. However, notifying the airline may ensure any desired accommodations are met with less stress on the day of travel.

Federal law has made provisions for people with disabilities who want to travel by airplane through the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) of 1986. The ACAA required the Department of Transportation to develop regulations to ensure non-discriminatory treatment of travelers with disabilities.
Note: While travelers with disabilities do have accommodations for air travel under the ACAA, they are not required to accept any or all accommodations.


Travel With an Attendant

Each airline determines whether an attendant is required, except in the following situations, which always require an attendant:

  1. Passengers who cannot comprehend or respond appropriately to safety instructions,
  2. Passengers with severe mobility issues who cannot assist in their own evacuation from the aircraft, and
  3. Passengers with both severe hearing and vision impairment that make it impossible to receive safety instructions.

When an airline determines a traveler needs an attendant, it is not required to supply one. The airline can appoint an off-duty staff member on the flight to serve as an attendant or ask another passenger to volunteer to assist.

If the traveler and the airline disagree over the need for an attendant, the airline can require one but cannot charge for transportation of the attendant. Travelers with disabilities may also consider getting a letter from a licensed medical provider stating that they are capable of performing the necessary functions if there is any concern about the airline requiring an attendant.

Medical Certificate

Generally a medical certificate is not required. However, there are exceptions and reasons why carrying a medical certificate may be a good idea. An airline may request a medical certificate if the traveler is on a stretcher or incubator, needs medical oxygen during the flight, or has a medical condition that causes the airline to have reasonable doubt that the person can complete the flight safely without extraordinary medical assistance. ACAA language leaves a lot up to airline personnel discretion. If concerned, the traveler with disabilities should get a medical certificate to avoid being denied the right to fly.

Airport Escort and Service Animals

Passengers with a disability may have an escort take them through security and to the gate if desired. The escort gets a permit from the ticket counter to pass through security. Security screenings should be the same as for any other passenger, with a few exceptions. Individuals who are not physically capable of standing and raising their arms at shoulder level for five-seven seconds, are unable to stand without the aid of a crutch, walker, etc., have a service animal, or use oxygen will be screened using alternative measures (e.g., pat-downs). If a private screening is requested, it must be provided in time for the traveler to make the flight.

Once through security, travelers with disabilities and their escorts may move freely about the terminal. The personnel at the gate are required to give all the information available to other passengers to these travelers as well. Trained staff must be available to aid travelers with disabilities on and off the plane if needed. By being proactive and informing personnel that a person with disabilities is on the flight, and the accommodations needed, the airline can ensure the traveler’s needs are met. In addition, the traveler is made aware of any information that may affect travel.

Once on the plane, seating cannot be made on the basis of disability, with the exception of FAA requirements for exit rows. Service animals must be permitted on board; however, animals may be placed in cargo if there is no safe place to put them on the flight. Airline personnel must help passengers with disabilities move around the cabin while on board (e.g., to the restroom), open food/beverage containers as needed, and load/retrieve baggage.

Refusing Travel on an Airplane

To ensure a smooth trip for travelers with disabilities, it is important to both know their rights and to be proactive in exercising these rights. While travelers cannot be denied travel due to disability, they can be denied travel if their presence on the flight would endanger others.  Airline personnel can refuse travel to any person they believe would endanger the health and safety of the other passengers. This can apply to someone they deem unable to assist themselves. Airline personnel cannot ask what disability a traveler has. However, they may ask questions to understand what the traveler can and cannot do and what accommodations the airline must make for the traveler.

When passengers are refused boarding, they must be informed by the airline how their presence on the flight would endanger other passengers. However, the airline does not have to provide the reasons for refusing boarding at the time of refusal but can wait until after the date of travel.

The best way to avoid unexpected delays is to be prepared. Knowing the rights of travelers with disabilities, how to enforce those rights, and the questions airline and airport personnel are allowed to ask are all key to ensuring a successful trip.

This overview by no means addresses every nuance of the Air Carrier Access Act and travel by air for persons with disabilities. There may be special rules that apply to particular situations, so be sure to research this before travel.

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