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On the Hill - Improving Air Travel

Reprinted from PN/Paraplegia News May 2017

Access to air travel for all people with disabilities is critical to ensuring access to health care, employment and recreation.

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One of Paralyzed Veterans of America’s (PVA) top public policies this year is to improve the air travel experience of passengers with disabilities. Access to air travel for all people with disabilities is critical to ensuring access to health care, employment and recreation. It’s largely because of the efforts of PVA that the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) was signed into law on Oct. 2, 1986. Despite 30 years of progress, people with disabilities continue to encounter damage to their wheelchairs, injuries to themselves, delays in receiving quality assistance in boarding and deplaning and inaccessible aircraft. Each year, the ACAA requires air carriers to report the number of disability-related complaints received at the Department of Transportation (DOT). The complaints are categorized by the type of disability and the type of discrimination alleged. Earlier this year, the DOT released the latest figures on complaints filed directly with air carriers. In 2015, passengers filed 30,830 disability-related complaints, as reported by 176 domestic and foreign air carriers. This represents a nearly 12% increase over 2014. The DOT also reported that passengers filed more than 860 disability-related complaints directly with the agency in 2016.

Making Progress

Early last year, PVA made progress toward improving these numbers by launching airaccess30.org.

The website allows individuals with disabilities to share their air travel experiences. The purpose of the site is to raise awareness about the ACAA, showcase progress to date and, most importantly, to highlight additional steps needed to improve access. These stories have proven crucial to illustrating reform areas. PVA, along with other members of the disability community and air carriers, last year also worked with the DOT to develop materials for air carriers and their contractors on the top four areas of disability-related complaints received by the DOT. The training materials include videos, brochures and digital content on wheelchair and guide assistance; storage, loss, delay and damage of wheelchairs and other mobility assistive devices; aircraft seating accommodations; and travel with service animals. The materials are all available on the DOT’s website (transportation.gov). Some air carriers are also adapting the materials for employee training.

In addition, PVA served on the DOT’s Advisory Committee on Accessible Air Transportation (ACCESS). The committee was charged with negotiating regulations concerning access to lavatories on single-aisle aircraft, the definition of a service animal and the accessibility of in-flight entertainment. After six months of negotiations, the committee came to consensus on two of the three issues under consideration involving lavatories and in-flight entertainment. As part of the negotiations, the DOT committed to publishing rules based on the consensus agreements.

Success On The Hill

On Capitol Hill, PVA found success with the inclusion of two disability-related provisions in the 2016 Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Extension. One provision required the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to submit a report to Congress regarding air carrier personnel and contractor training programs. The GAO is currently working on the report. The other provision requires the DOT to issue specific pending ACAA regulations within one year of enactment, including accessible lavatories on single-aisle aircraft, seating accommodations and service animals. This year, PVA is advocating for the DOT to publish the regulations governing accessible lavatories and in-flight entertainment that were negotiated by the ACCESS Advisory Committee in 2016. In addition, PVA is looking for the DOT to move forward with proposed rules governing the definition of a service animal under the ACAA and seating accommodations. As aircraft cabins have become more monetized, seating accommodations have become an area of increasing concern.

Continued Advocacy

The expiration of the current FAA authorization this September sets up another legislative opportunity for ACAA reform. PVA wants to ensure that any reauthorization addresses the current problems encountered by people with disabilities in air travel. The organization is advocating for the reauthorization to include improvements such as referral of ACAA-related complaints to the Department of Justice, a private right of action, a disability bill of rights and improved training for airline personnel and their contractors. PVA continues to advocate for improved access to air travel for passengers with disabilities by working with elected officials, members of the White House administration and the air carriers. To be successful, PVA will need the advocacy of all of its chapters and members to communicate its message to decision makers. Working together, PVA can continue to improve access for all people with disabilities.

PVA members are encouraged to share their air travel stories on airaccess30.org.

Heather Ansley is PVA’s associate general counsel of corporate government relations at its national office in Washington, D.C.

 

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On the Hill - Improving Air Travel

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