Up, Up, and Away ,Air Travel

Everybody is flying these days. Indeed, air travel is one of the most popular forms of travel. Unfortunately, for people with disabilities, air travel can also be one of the most problematic areas of travel. Perhaps it’s because there are just so many things that can go wrong on any given flight. And then again, perhaps it’s due to the mountain of misinformation circulating about accessible travel. I believe it’s a combination of both factors; however, I tend to favor the misinformation theory, mostly because of my own experience with this growing phenomenon. So, what’s wrong with a little misinformation? Well, if you rely on it and accept it as the truth, you may be in for a rude awakening when you take off on your holiday and find out that it’s incorrect. Admittedly, it can be difficult to ferret out the wheat from the chaff, as far as misinformation is concerned. This situation is further complicated by the fact that you can’t always determine a person’s credibility based on his or her position in the community. Just because somebody is a well respected professional does not mean that they’re also an expert on accessible travel. The story of Lenny the Lawyer comes to mind here. I had the great misfortune of meeting Lenny, a well respected corporate lawyer, at a national disability conference a few years ago. I gave a presentation about accessible travel and Lenny was in charge of introducing me. He seemed harmless enough, until he opened his mouth. Lenny knew very little about accessible travel, but he obviously felt the need to include something of substance in his introduction. So he proceeded to tell the audience that Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) entitles all wheelchair-users to guaranteed bulkhead seating. Of course, nothing can’t be false. He then informed the audience that he always manages to get bulkhead seats. He elaborated that he merely threatens to file a Title II lawsuit, and voila, the seats are his. Now I’m not arguing that Lenny could definitely be a major pain in the backside; in fact, if I were a reservation agent I would most likely give him the darned seats just to get him off the phone. But that’s not the way things usually work in real life. And more important, Lenny the Lawyer did my audience a real disservice by spreading this misinformation. Fortunately, Lenny was not at all interested in hearing my presentation. He left immediately after the introduction, at which point I told the audience the truth. Although the Lenny incident is quite memorable, it’s far from an isolated case. I’ve seen many other people spread misinformation: travel agents, rehabilitation professionals, and yes, even writers. Misinformation is rampant. So what’s a traveler to do? Ask for documentation. If somebody can’t back up their claims with hard facts, then there’s a good chance that they too are spreading misinformation. It’s hard to argue with cold hard facts. With that in mind, let’s talk about the facts of air travel.

Air Carrier Access Act

contrary to the gospel according to Lenny, the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), covers air travel on all U.S.-based airlines. The ACAA outlines procedures that U.S. airlines must follow regarding passengers with disabilities. Among other things, the ACAA mandates that people with a disability cannot be denied boarding solely because of their disability. It also forbids airlines from assessing surcharges for the services mandated by the ACAA. Although many people take these rights for granted, consider the alternative. Here are a few examples. M KLM, a Dutch based airline, refuses to board nonambulatory passengers who are not accompanied by an able-bodied escort. The official KLM policy on nonambulatory passengers is as follows. “The passenger must be accompanied by an escort. They must fly on a wide body aircraft, on a flight with a duration of over 3 hours; and medical approval must be given (in advance) by KLM’s Medical Department in Amsterdam.” Even wheelchair athletes and other nonambulatory passengers who live independently have been denied boarding by KLM. M Wheelchair-users don’t fare any better on Norwegian Air Shuttle (NAS), which operates domestic flights throughout Norway. According to the Federation of Organizations of Disabled People, NAS refuses to transport passengers in power wheelchairs because they can’t store those wheelchairs in their luggage compartments. Other non-U.S. airlines have similar policies, as a former Thai Airways passenger recounts. “I was seated on a Thai Airways flight from Bangkok to Sydney, when I was approached by several airline employees and asked to disembark because I was a paraplegic,” he said. “I refused, and the next 15 minutes were about as publicly humiliating as it gets. They wanted to know how I could use the toilet if I could not walk. They said I would have to deplane, because I was a safety risk, and I was unable to go to the toilet. I explained to them that I had traveled extensively throughout Southeast Asia on my own. I then showed them my return airline ticket, which proved I had already traveled from New Zealand to Thailand unaccompanied. I guess they decided that I wasn’t much of a safety risk after all, as a few minutes later the plane started to taxi down the runway (with me on board).” One of the passengers using wheelchair didn’t fare as well with Brittania Airways.. “Two weeks prior to our scheduled departure I called to reconfirm our reservations and to make sure our request for boarding assis tance was noted,” she said. “The customer service agent asked me if we could get to the airplane toilet by ourselves (we can if we have to) and if we use catheters (we don’t). I pointed out that even though my husband and I both use a wheelchair, we made this same journey the previous year without incident. This made absolutely no difference to Britannia Airways. They refused to fly us and canceled our reservations.” Some airlines, like Air New Zealand, refuse to assist passengers with transfers. In fact, Air New Zealand’s official policy states, “If you are unable to self-lift to transfer between the wheelchair or aisle chair and the aircraft seat, a support person will be necessarily .” , that means If the transfer can’t be done, you must provide you own one. And finally, Ryanair, the Ireland-based self-touted “low fare airline” actually charges extra to carry some disabled passengers. These charges are not reflected in Ryanair’s published fares, because passengers are required to pay them directly to third-party contractors who provide wheelchair assistance at some U.K. airports. Contractors at these airports charge a lift-on and lift-off fee of £12.50 per occurrence. A direct round trip involves two lift-ons and two lift-offs, resulting in extra charges of £50. According to Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary, Ryanair only requires people traveling without their own wheelchair to pay these fees directly to the contractors. Interestingly enough, British Midland and Aer Lingus use the same airport facilities and contractors as Ryanair does; however, these airlines don’t require their passengers to pay extra for wheelchair assistance. Apparently, British Midland and Aer Lingus absorb the charges into their general operating costs and distribute them equally to all passengers. Disability rights activists have tried to fight Ryanair on this issue, but to no avail. The fight continues and hopefully, one day Ryanair’s discriminatory practices will be a thing of the past. For now, it’s best to avoid Ryanair at all costs. Choose an airline that doesn’t charge extra for accessible services. Unfortunately Ryanair is not alone. Nationwide, a domestic South African airline, also charges passengers for wheelchair assistance. We’ve had reports of passengers being charged a whopping $260 for wheelchair assistance, which in many cases amounts to more than the cost of the ticket. As you can see, the ACAA affords travelers using U.S. airlines at least a minimum level of protection—a protection that is not found on many foreign air carriers. Now, you may hear from time to time that the ACAA also applies to non-U.S. airlines. In fact, the Aviation Investment and Reform Act of the 21st Century (AIR 21), which was signed into law on April 5, 2000, promised to extend portions of the ACAA to include non-U.S. air carriers. So, where are we now with this “promise”? That depends on who you ask. According to a Department of Transportation (DOT) spokesperson, “For now, foreign airlines have been put on notice that AIR 21 exists and they are strongly encouraged to comply with The soul of the low : On the other hand, according to an Est Coast travel agent specializes in accessible travel ,the application of this regulation is not sure, “How can you enforce something without any specific regulations? Even when the regulations are set, I think it will be very difficult for travelers to enforce a U.S. law on foreign soil, especially if they don’t speak the language.” Time will tell how much protection AIR 21 will offer. For now, the best advice is to proceed with caution and operate on the assumption that only U.S. carriers are required to abide by the ACAA. The ACAA is a pretty straightforward piece of legislation; that is, until you get to the gray area of codeshare flights. A codeshare is a marketing agreement between two airlines, in which one airline operates flights under the code of the other airline. Although not specifically addressed in the ACAA, in 1998, an interesting settlement transpired regarding a codeshare flight. The settlement stemmed from the following incident. A wheelchair-user traveled unaccompanied from Seattle to New York on a United Airlines flight. He then tried to transfer to United flight 3516 to Frankfurt, Germany. This particular flight was a code share operated by Lufthansa Airlines. Lufthansa refused to board him, stating that he was a safety risk because he could not assist in his own evacuation in case of an emergency. Seeing that he had just traveled across the country by himself, and wheeled himself down the jetway unassisted, the passenger contended he could indeed assist with his own emergency evacuation. Still, he was refused boarding. Under the terms of the settlement agreement, neither airline admitted any wrongdoing, but both agreed to cease and desist from future violations. United paid a fine of $3,000 and Lufthansa paid a fine of $1,000. In another case, Continental Airlines was found to have violated the ACAA when its foreign partner, Alitalia, refused to sell a ticket to a wheelchair-user. This case arose when a Newark Alitalia ticket agent refused to sell an unaccompanied wheelchair-user a roundtrip ticket to Rome. Alitalia cited its long-standing policy that requires wheelchair-users to be accompanied by attendants on all flights over 3 hours long. Since the flight was a codeshare, operated on a Continental airplane and staffed by a Continental crew, the judge found in favor of the plaintiff and ruled against Continental Airlines. The moral of the story is to be wary of codeshares. In practice, some foreign codeshare partners may still deny boarding to unaccompanied wheelchair-users. Granted, it’s technically against the law, but it does happen, and it’s the kind of thing that can really ruin your vacation. The bottom line is, always err on the side of caution. At the risk of sounding ethnocentric, use a U.S.-based carrier whenever possible. That way, you know you’re protected under the ACAA. (To be fair, Canada also has similar legislation called the Canadian Transportation Act.) Other than that, watch your step, especially in underdeveloped countries. I’ve heard more than one story from wheelers who were stranded in the Caribbean because a non-U.S. carrier refused to board them. Their only recourse was to purchase a higher-priced same day return ticket on a U.S. carrier; a very costly option. Don’t let that happen to you. Know Your Rights before you plan your flight, you should learn your rights under the ACAA. Once you have an understanding of the regulations, you will also have a good idea of what to expect as far as access in the air is concerned. Education and consumer awareness are the essential first steps to getting the services you need. To that end, a great resource is New Horizons: Information for Air Travelers with a Disability, a pocket-sized guide that explains your rights under the ACAA. This Department of Transportation (DOT) publication details your rights, as covered under the ACAA. It’s available for a $3 shipping and handling charge from the Paralyzed Veterans of America (item 2100-16). Call (888) 860-7244 to order your copy. The guide is small enough to carry in your pocket or purse, and I highly recommend you take it with you when you travel. Somehow, people just tend to take you more seriously when you can actually point out the law in black and white. Plus, it’s also a handy reference. Of course, the ACAA has been amended a few times since its creation, so I also recommend reading both the seating amendment and the wheelchair damage amendment. Both amendments were published in the Federal Register—the seating amendment on March 4, 1998, and the wheelchair damage amendment on August 2, 1999. It wouldn’t hurt to carry a copy of these documents with you either.

 Know Your Aircraft

Do you know the difference between an EMB-120 and a 777-200? Well, you should learn if you plan to travel by air. I’m not implying that you should become an aeronautical engineer, but it really does help to know some of the basic differences between different types of airplanes. Under the ACAA, Basic information about services and planes as well as accessibility of the premises should be communicated to potential travelers by US airlines. Such information can include facts like the location of seats with movable aisle armrests, the locations and dimensions of storage facilities for mobility aids. As you might expect, some airlines do a better job of providing this information than others. For example, Continental Airlines has an excellent website (continental.com) that includes seating diagrams for all their aircraft, the location of the seats with movable armrests, and even the dimensions of the cargo bin doors on their commuter aircraft. You can also obtain most of this information by phone. Don’t be shy about asking for it, and remember to ask for it before you book your flight. Regarding the question about different planes, the big difference between the two is their size. The EMB-120 has 30 seats and the 777-200 has 383 seats. This is important, because most ACAA regulations regarding aircraft accessibility and boarding are referenced by aircraft size. Here are some important numbers; the following ACAA rules apply to planes ordered after April 5, 1990 or delivered after April 5, 1992: M Planes with 30 or more seats must have moveable armrests on at least half the aisle seats, and airline employees are required to know the locations of those seats. M Wide-body jets (those with two aisles) must have an accessible lavatory. M Planes with more than 60 seats and an accessible lavatory must have an onboard wheelchair. M Planes with 60 or more seats that do not have an accessible lavatory must carry an onboard wheelchair upon passenger request (48 hours advance notice required). M And finally, planes with more than 100 seats must have priority space to carry at least one folding wheelchair in the cabin. As far as boarding assistance goes, that also depends on the size of the aircraft. The ACAA mandates level boarding whenever possible on all aircraft with 30 or more seats. If level boarding is not possible, the airline is allowed to use a boarding device such as a lift, ramp, or stair climber. In aircraft with fewer than 30 seats, level boarding is not required. Airline personnel may use other mechanical boarding devices, as long as the passenger’s physical limitations don’t preclude using such devices. Under no circumstances are airline personnel required to handcarry a passenger on any aircraft with fewer than 30 seats. Airlines are required to maintain all lift devices, but even in the event of a mechanical breakdown, airline personnel are still not required to hand-carry passengers on any aircraft with fewer than 30 seats. Additionally, a few aircraft are considered exempt from the boarding assistance requirements of the ACAA. These aircraft are the Fairchild Metro, the Jetstream 31, and Beech 1900 C and D models. Boarding assistance (lifts) are not required for these exempt aircraft. According to the DOT, using a lift could create a significant risk of damage to these aircraft. Disability rights advocates are currently fighting this exemption, but for now it’s best to steer away from these exempt aircraft. Boarding options can also vary, depending on the size of the airport. Not all airports have jetways that enable level boarding. Additionally, even airports that do have jetways may not have a level boarding option due to heavy traffic. This is a common occurrence at many large international airports. If all gates are being used, even a large plane will park out on the tarmac and passengers will deplane via boarding stairs. The passengers then are bussed to the terminal. It’s always a good practice to ask what deplaning procedures are available at your destination airport, just so there won’t be any surprises. Can advance planning and aircraft research really make a difference when it comes to air travel? Well, the story of my friend Elaine comes to mind. Elaine is a rather heavy lady and she uses an equally heavy power wheelchair. Elaine booked a flight on a small (25 seat) aircraft. When she arrived at the airport check-in counter, the clerk asked Elaine if she could walk up a flight of stairs. Elaine informed the clerk that of course she could not. The clerk in turn told Elaine that she would not be able to board the flight. Elaine inquired as to why, and the clerk hemmed and hawed, but finally came out and told Elaine that she was too heavy for the lift, and too large to fit in the aisle chair. An argument ensued. Security was called. Things got ugly. In the end, the airline won out and Elaine had to reschedule her trip on a larger aircraft. It was an unfortunate incident, but the airline was well within its rights under the ACAA. A 1996 amendment to the ACAA states that “on aircraft with less than 30 seats, if a passenger cannot get to a seat that he or she can use (i.e., they are not able to fit in the boarding chair used on narrow-aisle commuter aircraft or unable to walk through a narrow aisle to a seat), the air carrier is not required to provide boarding (lift) assistance, as it is futile.” Now, when Elaine makes flight arrangements, she asks the airline how they board nonambulatory passengers; and if they reply, “by lift,” she then asks the weight capacity of the lift. She also asks for the width of the aisles and the boarding chair on smaller commuter aircraft. She then determines if she will be able to use the aircraft in question. Sometimes it takes two or three phone calls but Elaine vows never to make the same mistake again. She now realizes that a little advance research can save a lot of heartache and embarrassment. Live and learn.