Friendly Skies: Understanding the Rights of Airline Passengers with Disabilities

Published July 30, 2020

The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) was passed in 1986 to prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities in air travel. The ACAA applies to all flights operated by American carriers, and all flights arriving to or departing from the United States by domestic or foreign airlines. The ACAA also provides accommodations for people with disabilities at no cost to the passenger. To make flying as smooth of a process as possible, it is important for the airlines and their employees to understand the law and to communicate properly with passengers with disabilities.

The ACAA is expansive, but at the heart of the law is the prohibition of discriminating against passengers with disabilities. The only reason a person may be excluded from a flight is when accommodating the person would cause a safety issue for the airplane and its passengers. The airline must provide written notice explaining the decision to not allow an individual to fly. Airlines may not limit the number of passengers with disabilities on a single flight and airlines may not require notification that a person with a disability is flying. Visit Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) for more information on what is required of airlines and accommodations that are available for passengers with disabilities.

The most important things for airlines and their employees to do when assisting passengers with disabilities are to listen, ask appropriate questions, and provide good information. Many of the problems that passengers with disabilities encounter while flying could be avoided if their concerns were heard and respected. People with disabilities know their bodies, their limitations, and what they may need help with. If, for example, a passenger needs assistance transferring to the airplane seat, listen to them to give instructions on how to help. A poor transfer can result in injury for both the passenger and those assisting. Listening to the passenger can help to make the process of flying smoother.

Knowing the right questions to ask

Those with the responsibility of assisting passengers with disabilities need to know what types of questions to ask in order to provide the best service possible. It is not appropriate to ask specific questions about a passenger’s disability, but it is appropriate to ask what type of assistance a passenger needs or how to handle their luggage or mobility aids. If a passenger is traveling with a wheelchair, it is best to ask how to properly handle the wheelchair when it is not in the possession of its owner. Damaged and lost wheelchairs are not only a terrible inconvenience for the passenger, but they can also cost several thousands of dollars for the airline to repair or replace.

Providing information to passengers with disabilities is a vital component of ensuring that the passenger has a good experience. A person might be flying for the first time with a disability and may not know what their rights are and what accommodations are available.

For instance, some airlines provide advance seat assignment (PDF) for passengers with disabilities while other airlines do not. Informing a passenger of whether advance seat assignments are available can make a big difference in how they prepare for a flight. If an advance seat assignment is not available, the passenger might choose to arrive to the airport early to ensure that they have plenty of time to get to the gate and request a specific seat or early boarding.

Air travel can be a hassle for passengers with disabilities, but it does not have to be. By adhering to the provisions of the ACAA and communicating effectively with passengers, the airlines can make the process of flying with a disability much easier. Airlines that make the effort to improve the experience for passengers with disabilities may separate themselves from their competitors and stand out as an example of how to run an airline that is inclusive for all.