Disabilities History & Awareness: Air Travel in the Modern Age
Air carriers have come a long way in their dealings with passengers with disabilities. As the 2012 summer vacation season approaches, these passengers can expect safer, more convenient access to air travel. But that wasn’t always the case.
In 1982, Charles “Charlie” J. Sabatier, Jr., a former advocacy director of the Paralyzed Veterans’ Association and a Vietnam veteran paralyzed from the waist down, had an experience that might stun many modern travelers. He was told to sit on a blanket on a Delta Airlines flight. The flight crew said it was a safety precaution in the event of evacuation, but Mr. Sabatier thought it was in case of loss of bladder control because of his disability. He found it demeaning, and he refused to use the blanket. When told that the flight would be canceled if he did not comply with the rule, he refused to oblige. The state police came aboard and arrested him for disorderly conduct.
This and other disturbing incidents led to a Paralyzed Veterans' lawsuit that reached the Supreme Court. The court, however, ruled that because air carriers did not receive federal funding, they were permitted to refuse service or otherwise discriminate against passengers with disabilities. Congress responded with surprising swiftness, and within two months of the Supreme Court’s decision, they passed the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA). President Ronald Reagan signed the Act into law October 2, 1986.
Today, advocates still are working to make the ACAA more effective. Even with its shortcomings, the ACAA helps make air travel more accessible than it was when Mr. Sabatier boarded that Delta flight 30 years ago. Among other things, the Act requires that domestic airlines and foreign airlines doing business in the United States provide passengers with disabilities timely assistance with boarding, deplaning, and making connections, and most new aircraft have priority space for a folding wheelchair and movable aisle armrests. It also requires that airlines allow service animals on flights.
Resources for air travelers with disabilities
- By phone: Air travelers with disabilities can call the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) toll-free hotline for general information about their rights, to request printed consumer information, and to request assistance with time-sensitive disability-related issues that need to be addressed in "real time." The hours for the hotline are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Eastern Time, Monday through Friday, except federal holidays. The hotline numbers are 1-800-778-4838 (voice) and 1-800-455-9880 (TTY).
- On the Web: The DOT Aviation Consumer Protection Division provides information on rules, guidance, enforcement orders, publications, and links to sites of interest to travelers with disabilities.
- On a smartphone: A recent article in the New York Times notes that half of travelers carry smartphones and describes a variety of apps that can guide travelers through airports, check passengers in, get flight status updates, track baggage, and more.