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Opinion: Accessibility Is Coming To Aviation. It’s About Time.
Over the summer, two major developments in disability accessibility were announced by American carriers. In early June, Delta Air Lines announced that one of its subsidiaries is developing a seat that would allow passengers to stay in their power wheelchairs during a flight. At the end of July, United Airlines announced it would become the first U.S. airline to add braille to aircraft interiors, including to mark rows, seat numbers, and the inside and outside of lavatories.
Neither of these changes will be immediate. It will take at least 18 months for Delta’s seat to enter service assuming it passes testing on time, while United won’t be able to retrofit all of its aircraft until 2026. Still, these moves represent a major step forward for disabled passengers in the United States.
The United States Department of Transportation reported that 27 million passengers with disabilities traveled in 2019. The U.S. Government Accountability Office has reported that large airport spread, TSA screening passengers, and improper handling of accommodation by airlines pose significant challenges to travelers with disabilities. Notably for this article, US airlines together mishandled, lost, damaged, delayed, or lost 11,389 wheelchairs and scooters in 2022, or about 1.54 per 100 that were loaded onto aircraft, per the Washington Post, the highest number since the Department of Transportation first reported the data in 2018.
Federal Accessibility Legislation
Delta’s and American’s moves come amid a greater push for aviation accessibility in the United States government. In spring 2023, Senators Tammy Duckworth and John Thune announced the Mobility Aids on Board Improve Lives and Empower All Act, otherwise known as the MOBILE Act, which would require the Department of Transportation to publicly report the type of damage that occurs to wheelchairs and mobility aids. It would also require airlines to provide sufficient information to passengers to make sure mobility aids can fit on an aircraft before boarding.
Disability advocates have called for more airline accountability and accessibility to be included in the next FAA reauthorization act, which is currently being developed.
“For passengers who use wheelchairs, traveling can oftentimes be difficult and frustrating,” Thune said. “I’m proud to join Senator Duckworth in introducing this common-sense legislation that would improve safety and accessibility for individuals who use mobility aids to help ensure their travel experience is as smooth and hassle-free as possible.”
Duckworth pointed out that it is often a medical risk for people to be moved into and out of wheelchairs. Being able to board a flight in your own wheelchair not only makes sure the chair isn’t lost or damaged, but it also reduces at least two points of risk when passengers are moved from their wheelchair into a plane seat, if not also transferred from their own chair to a chair owned by an airline or airport.
“This isn’t just a customer service issue; this is actually a safety issue,” Duckworth said. “If people don’t have access to their devices or a safe way to board the plane, then they’re subjecting themselves to injury.”
Practical Uses of Airlines’ Developments
It is expected that Delta will make its convertible seat accessible to other airlines for use. Since the chair can be used on the same seat tracks airlines already used on their aircraft, transferring the new seats in will be a relatively cheap job.
It has yet to be seen whether airlines will take up Delta’s offer. But it is common for airlines to pick up the practices other airlines have already adopted once the new practices are proven safe and cost-effective, especially when under pressure from customers and advocacy groups.
A 2021 report found that removing two rows of seats would allow for the installation of in-cabin wheelchair securement systems with no issue, though more studies on safety and feasibility. With these seats taking up extra room on the aircraft, airlines wouldn’t be able to fly as many passengers on one aircraft; charging extra for a wheelchair seat may not stand in a court challenge on discrimination grounds, so the installation of these chairs may end up being a price all passengers end up paying for.
Though widebody aircraft are required to have accessible restrooms, narrowbody planes are not at the time of writing. Delta’s seat does have a method to transfer passengers into more compact seats when they need to use the restroom, so the rollout for single-aisle planes will be interesting to see.
United’s move, though, will not be a difficult one to match, as other airlines will not need to purchase entirely new seats for each plane. At least from an optics standpoint, it is much easier to place braille markings on overhead bins and armrests.
“No other form of transportation — trains, buses, boats — forces you to give up your mobility device when you board. The same ought to be true of airlines,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said last summer. “We know this won’t happen overnight, but it is a goal that we have to work to fulfill.”
Recent History of Accessibility in Aviation
Airlines are not always known for being the most disability-friendly. After a number of high-profile incidents, such as when a passenger tried to bring a peacock onto a flight, airlines unilaterally limited the types of emotional support animals passengers can bring onboard flights. Though United allows both dogs and cats onboard flights, other airlines only allow dogs onboard. The call received some backlash but was implemented after a 2020 Department of Transportation ruling decided that emotional support animals would no longer be considered service animals and thus released airlines from needing to accept every animal onboard.
And while American carriers are often at the front of the pack in terms of aviation developments around the world, other airlines around the world have notable accessibility features that rival or even surpass what US airlines do. Aer Lingus, for example, has resources available for autistic travelers to help them navigate the potential sensory overload of air travel.
Still, many airlines, both in the US and around the world, simply direct passengers to rely on airport staff and cabin crew, who are often burdened with many tasks as airlines and airports struggle to fully staff their operations, for assistance.
It is good, then, to know that Delta and United are adding one more layer of accessibility to their operations to make it that much easier for passengers to find and use their seats and for cabin crews to support them throughout their trip. It is not unwise to hope and expect that other airlines will follow their leads or continue to innovate for the betterment of the traveling public.
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