New Law Requires Airlines To Better Assist Travelers With Disabilities

Michelle Diament | May 24, 2024

View looking up at the sky with the silhouette of a plane flying above.

People with disabilities are poised to see big improvements when traveling by air thanks to a host of changes tucked inside a massive reauthorization of federal aviation programs.

The measure signed by President Joe Biden this month includes new requirements for airline workers assisting wheelchair users, accessibility upgrades at airports and enforcement of rules protecting the rights of flyers with disabilities.

The law mandates that airline workers be trained before assisting passengers boarding with an aisle chair or before storing wheelchairs and other mobility devices. It also requires airline websites, apps and kiosks to be accessible and specifies that the Federal Aviation Administration must reconsider airplane evacuation procedures to ensure that all passengers can deplane quickly in an emergency.

The legislation gives people with disabilities the option to request seating accommodations on aircraft so that they can be with a companion, have more leg room or be near a restroom, for example. Further, lawmakers took steps to ensure that people know they can reserve onboard wheelchairs.

All medium and large airports will be required to install or maintain at least one universal changing station — designed to allow caregivers to assist people of all sizes who cannot use the restroom — in every terminal and to post signage about the location of these changing stations. The law also establishes a new pilot program providing grants to airports to upgrade accessibility.

Meanwhile, the legislation mandates that the secretary of transportation submit a “strategic roadmap” to Congress within a year on the feasibility of restraining wheelchairs on commercial airliners. If the idea is deemed doable, the secretary would have two years to produce a report studying the economic and financial implications of seating arrangements that could accommodate wheelchairs in flight.

The measure “represents the most significant effort by Congress in over a decade to make flying safer, easier and more accessible for passengers with disabilities,” said U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., who uses a wheelchair and who championed many of the disability provisions.

Steve Cullen, board chair of All Wheels Up, a nonprofit that has funded research looking at including wheelchairs on aircraft, said it’s significant that Congress specified that training for workers assisting with aisle chairs must instruct employees on “how to effectively communicate with, and take instruction from, the passenger.”

“When traveling by air, passengers who use wheelchairs assume personal risks above that of the average flyer due largely to the need to physically transfer,” Cullen said. “To protect passengers’ personal health, safety and dignity, airport and airline personnel who assist wheelchair users need to be trained on standards of care and best practices, which includes listening to the passenger with a disability on what works for their wellbeing.”

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