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Air Travel for People with Disabilities Remains Ambiguous

TravelPulse logo TravelPulse 10/13/2018 Alex Temblador

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Reauthorization Act of 2018 was signed into law on October 5th, and while many have focused on how it will affect travelers like prohibiting airlines from bumping passengers who have already boarded a plane, there’s been little discussion on the mandate that focuses on the rights of travelers with disabilities.

The new FAA Reauthorization Act allows for the development of a bill of rights for airline passengers with disabilities. This new bill of rights requires the FAA to investigate seating accommodations for travelers who use wheelchairs, provide guidelines to screening passengers with disabilities, and create a final rule on the use of service animals on planes.

While a bill of rights for travelers with disabilities sounds great in theory, disability rights advocates aren’t optimistic.

For one, there’s currently no deadline for the creation of this bill of rights, and disability rights advocates argue that a bill of rights is far too passive and wouldn’t be enforceable.

“Unlike the health department that rates restaurants and goes around checking that they’re under code, there is no one to confirm that people are complying,” Janice Lintz, CEO of Hearing Access & Innovations Inc. told Mic. “When you don’t have funding and you don’t have compliance, it’s meaningless.”

John Morris, the founder of WheelchairTravel.org, echoes Lintz: “Quite amazingly, I have many readers that don’t even know that when a wheelchair is damaged [by an airline], the airline is responsible for paying [for] it.”

Currently, the only enforcement that exists for individuals with disabilities is to complain to the Department of Transportation, and Morris claims that the complaints rarely result in penalties, despite United Airlines being fined for $2.75 million in 2016 for disability-related violations.

“As these rules are articulated, there has to be a way to make sure there’s no abuse,” Lintz said. “We’ve seen that with emotional service animals, with an array of insane animals coming onto planes. From squirrels to llamas, we’ve got the whole Noah’s Ark.”

For this new bill of rights to work, disability advocates say there must be language that explicitly makes clear what violations are so airlines can’t deny one occurred. They also hope that its inclusive of people who don’t have visible disabilities like those with hearing or visual impairments or cognitive disabilities.

Wheelchair travel: A woman in a wheelchair at the airport (photo courtesy (iStock / Getty Images Plus / Manuel-F-O) © Getty Images A woman in a wheelchair at the airport (photo courtesy (iStock / Getty Images Plus / Manuel-F-O)

Jill Vassi, Vice President of Exceptional Vacations, a travel agency "dedicated to providing high-quality vacation opportunities for individuals with developmental disabilities and special needs," told TravelPulse:

"I think there should be educated security professionals doing the screening for travelers. I know someone with diabetes that uses a device that is connected to her at all times. The security screener tried to physically remove it from her body which caused her a lot of pain."

In terms of travelers with intellectual disabilities, Vassi highlights how airports have yet to provide the right kind of assistance:

"For our travelers with intellectual disabilities, there should be some standardized policies on allowing gate passes so that someone who knows them can help them navigate the airport. They should also be given assistance between gates, even if they are ambulatory."

"Currently an ambulatory traveler with an intellectual disability has to use the wheelchair assist at the airport in order to get assistance between gates for connecting flights. Obviously, there is much room for improvement."

Lintz hopes that a committee of people with individuals with disabilities will assist in the bill’s creation to make sure that all considerations for these travelers are made and included.

“I think this is a great opportunity,” Lintz said, “but let’s make it the bill it was meant to be and bring on the people who can help it succeed.”

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