Waking up to the struggles of disabled flyers

Robert Silk

Over the course of the past couple of months, I’ve written three stories about the challenges faced by persons with disabilities during air travel.

I do not have a disability, and it’s been a revealing assignment. It has led me to think about issues I’d never thought of before.

Over the course of the reporting, no comment resonated more with me than one made by Claire Stanley, a public policy analyst for the National Disability Rights Network, in reference to the lack of accessible lavatories on single-aisle aircraft.

“Sometimes travelers will dehydrate themselves so they don’t have to use the lavatory,” she told me.

If you aren’t mobility-impaired, perhaps you’ve never thought about having to take such a drastic measure just so you can take a vacation or visit a loved one. Stanley also spoke of flyers on cross-country itineraries who make a point of booking a plane change just so they can use a toilet.

In addition, advocates spoke with me about the anxiety travelers experience related to the possibility that an airline will damage or misplace their checked wheelchair. The most recently available DOT data shows that carriers mishandled 1.57% of all wheelchairs or scooters in August. JetBlue mishandled more than 5%. At Spirit, the figure was an appalling 6.76%.

Michael Lewis, the director of disability policy for the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA), told me that it’s not uncommon for MDA members to pass up an opportunity to participate in a clinical trial due to the discomfort and anxiety of air travel.

“Improving the accessibility of the air travel is one of the MDA’s top priorities,” Lewis said.

Unfortunately, it’s not clear whether airlines are as committed to such a goal.

The good news is that the carriers at least say they are. Last month, Airlines for America (A4A), which represents the largest U.S. airlines, announced a pledge by its passenger carrier members to improve accessibility. Notably, airlines pledged to improve their handling of wheelchairs as well as their performance in transferring customers between personal wheelchairs and the chairs that airlines use to take flyers onto planes.

A4A carriers also promised to improve accessibility services training and to support the continuing development of safe aircraft accessibility features.

The pledge, however, did not include any specific targets. And on the commitment to support accessibility features, A4A hedged, using the language, “safe and feasible.” 

  • Related: State of accessible travel: Flying while disabled

Call me circumspect, but “feasible” in this case sounds like a potential catch-all to exclude any adjustment that is not revenue accretive.

Under existing regulations, carriers aren’t required to offer accessible lavatories on single-aisle planes, even though semi-accessible lavatory models do exist. Indeed, Spirit, Delta and Frontier already have those lavatories on some Airbus aircraft.

Boeing, meanwhile, expects to have accessible lavatories available on 737 Max deliveries by 2025.

Here’s a way I’d like to see airlines demonstrate their commitment to accessibility:

Airlines should make inclusion of such lavatories a priority on future aircraft orders. At Airbus, semi-accessible lavatories can be included without even eating into revenue-producing seat space, the manufacturer says. 

Meanwhile, airlines that already have such lavatories should be more public about it. Information should be built into the booking path so that flyers can actually seek out those planes when possible.

For mobility-limited flyers, I can only imagine that would be a lot easier than dehydrating themselves. 

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