November 20, 2018

Flying disabled in the unfriendly skies

On Jan. 8, the United States Department of Transportation announced it was fining United Airlines $2 million in response to disability-related complaints from incidents in 2014, including not providing proper assistance for passengers with disabilities getting on and off airplanes and in moving through multiple airport terminals. Another problem was the airline often failed to return wheelchairs and other mobility or assistive devices to passengers in a timely fashion or in the same condition in which they were checked in. 

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx said, “We will make sure that airlines comply with our rules and treat their passengers fairly.”

That same month, we were flying back to Los Angeles from Philadelphia with our young adult son, who uses an adult stroller for longer walking distances, and found ourselves in the front of a long line of passengers in wheelchairs, all waiting for the moment when people needing “extra assistance or extra time” could board. As so often happens, the plane had arrived late from its previous destination, and everyone in the waiting area was starting to get annoyed by the delay. It was obvious that many of the passengers weren’t happy to see the long line of passengers in wheelchairs getting in the way of their own boarding.

I counted six older passengers in wheelchairs, plus us. I started talking to one of the airport staff members assigned to help the other passengers in wheelchairs, asking if most flights out of Philadelphia had this many passengers who needed wheelchairs and assistance in getting on and off the airplane. She said yes, and, in fact, some flights had as many as 10. 

“The crazy thing,” she whispered to me, “is that the airlines are always giving us a hard time, trying to get the passengers on the plane as quickly as possible, but there just isn’t enough space in economy to do that.”

As anyone who has flown in the last few years knows all too well, flying commercial airlines has turned into an “every man for himself” type of activity, as airlines now charge for food and even a tiny bit more leg space in bulkhead seats. As airlines scramble to wring more profits from every conceivable component of air travel in the economy/coach sections, seats have been squeezed together to make way for more passengers and aisle space has narrowed. For disabled passengers who move slowly and may need to be transferred from wheelchairs to an aisle seat, this space deficit only makes matters worse, and it takes up more precious minutes for everyone.

Although the airline industry is prohibited from discriminating on the basis of disability by the Air Carrier Access Act of 1986, there are still many remaining disability issues that need to be addressed. In response to the concerns of disability advocates and the high number of complaints, such as those from United Airlines passengers, the Department of Transportation has hired a neutral convener to consider the feasibility of a negotiated rulemaking to develop additional rules to ensure equal access to air transportation for travelers

One of the more urgent issues is the accessibility of bathrooms on planes. Some aircraft have so-called “accessible bathrooms,” but currently, there aren’t any specifications about the height or placement of the grab bars or the toilet. Most of those lavatories are still tiny and very hard to get in and out of. If you need someone to provide assistance with using the toilet, it’s almost an impossible task unless you can stack yourselves vertically. Airline crew members are supposed to transfer people with very limited mobility to an aisle chair and then push the passenger to the accessible bathroom, but if that bathroom is too narrow to make the transfer from the aisle chair to the toilet, then you’ll still be left without the proverbial pot to pee in.

There are some good solutions. Boeing and Airbus have designed roomier, wheelchair-accessible bathrooms for all commercial aircraft. For example, Airbus has an optional configuration called SpaceFlex for its A320s, which features two adjacent bathrooms with a folding partition wall between them, which can convert into one larger space without any loss of seats. However, airlines design the interiors they want, and whether airlines choose to feature accessible bathrooms is up to them.

Another personal safety issue is ensuring that individuals who are dependent on in-flight medical oxygen have greater access to air travel consistent with federal safety and security requirements. Although airlines are required by law to make such accommodations, commercial air carriers’ policies regarding in-flight oxygen vary considerably, potentially leading to a great deal of confusion for travelers. Passengers are required to stow their Federal Aviation Administration-approved oxygen canisters during takeoffs and landings, but may need to be able to access oxygen after takeoff, often requiring assistance from crew members to get the equipment down from the overhead bins while “fasten seat belt” signs are on.

Another issue that has been raised is whether premium economy is a different class of service from standard economy, as airlines are required to provide seating accommodations to passengers with disabilities within the same class of service. As the cost of every inch of legroom increases, will airlines end up discriminating against passengers with disabilities? Various disability organizations have reported to the Department of Transportation that their members are unable to obtain bulkhead seating while traveling with a service animal, as the bulkhead seats are now primarily located in what has been designated by airlines as the premium economy section.

Flying is an important aspect of modern life and will only become more so in the future, with friends, families and employment opportunities now scattered across the country and the world. We can only hope the negotiated rulemaking process will yield more accessible solutions for passengers with disabilities, making the skies a little friendlier for everyone.

Michelle K. Wolf writes a monthly column for the Jewish Journal. Visit her Jews and Special Needs blog at