Air Travel

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Summer is a time of family travel near and far, to take in the crisp salt air of a seaside town or walk through the wonders of ancient ruins; free from school, free from work – free. With the protections afforded by the American with Disabilities Act and the Air Carrier Access Act, those with disabilities can claim air travel is closer to being barrier free, than it ever was in history. Knowledge of airline travel requirements and some pre-trip planning can make the next family trip a fun adventure, with less hassle.

Navigating the friendly skies

Mention summertime and most people will recall fond memories of family travel; camping trips at a national park, roller coasters rides at a regional amusement park, a magical dream destination at Disney or a visit with family across state lines.

For parents traveling with a child who has Cerebral Palsy, recollections will likely include the use of powered wheelchairs, scooters, or walking devices; the reliance on CPAPs, BiPAPs or APAPs; the need to follow regular medication regimes, specialized food preparation, service dogs, and/or traveling care assistants. Individuals with hearing impairment, or loss, may require written safety instructions while those with vision impairment may require assistance navigating airports, ticket counters, airplanes, and tarmacs. Even restroom activities require special considerations.

Traveling by air is usually a quicker form of transportation for long distances; however, air travel has become increasingly more complicated because of new homeland security measures that resulted from the unfortunate events of terrorist attacks against Americans, commonly referred to as 911.

Both the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, and the Air Carrier Access Act of 1986, or ACAA, regulates airline travel. The ACAA prohibits discrimination against passengers with disabilities and requires air carriers to accommodate the needs, including requiring airlines to provide assistance with boarding, deplaning, and transfers.

There are two key provisions under the ACAA. The carriers may not refuse transportation to people on the basis of disability, except when carrying the person would be detrimental to the safety of the flight. Secondly, although airlines cannot demand advance notice that a person with a disability is traveling, it can require up to 48 hours advanced notice for accommodations that require preparation time such as providing respirator services or transporting an electric wheelchair on an aircraft with less than 60 seats.

Adaptive equipment, wheelchairs, and mobility devices are allowed on airlines. Wheelchairs and other assistive equipment are given priority over other items for storage in the baggage compartment and are not counted against carry-on limitations.

Passengers are allowed to bring prescription drugs and other medically-required substance, such as water or juice, onto flights. Permitted items include prescription and over-the-counter medications, water, juice, and liquid nutrition supplements. These items must be declared to a security screener at the security checkpoint.

Air carriers can’t require a medical certificate, which is a statement of health from the traveler’s doctor stating that the passenger is capable of flying without medical care, solely on the basis of disability. An airline can request this certificate if there is reasonable concern that the passenger will need medical assistance, such as if he or she will require oxygen while in flight, or has a special medical condition in which the airline believes that the passenger wouldn’t be able to complete the flight without “extraordinary medical assistance.”

However, having either a medical certificate to present should any questions arise, or a frequent traveler’s medical card which outlines any relevant conditions can streamline airline boarding procedures. The medical card acts as medical clearance for the airline and is good to have if the family travels extensively. The card is available from the airline’s medical department.

Tips for traveling with a child with special needs

With some planning and forethought, navigating airport security can be easier and hassle-free. Here are some tips for traveling with a child with special needs:

  • Know your specific needs. Plan the vacation, including transporting luggage and other belongings. Pack snacks, small toys, and “comfort” items for children.
  • Consider the destination’s accessibility and accommodations. Plan for possible emergencies; know where the nearest hospital is and how to get there. If traveling overseas, confirm the acceptance of health insurance and consider purchasing supplemental travel insurance.
  • Contact the airline before your vacation to arrange for special accommodations during travel.
  • Avoid short transfer periods. Transfers can be stressful for both the child and the parents due to potential delays and mobility constraints. Longer transfer periods provides wiggle-room in case transfer takes longer than expected.
  • Print all relevant information that pertains to the child’s health concerns and carry for ease in retrieval.
  • Calmly ask to speak to a supervisor trained in ADA compliance when conflicts and misunderstandings occur over potential discriminatory practices.
  • Use a backpack for emergency supplies, special dietary concerns, and other items useful when caring for the child’s special needs.
  • Take care of yourself. Make sure you are well-fed, rested, and hydrated before you go to the airport. The adage, “Be healthy so you can be there for your child” applies.

Whether it’s a short trip to the Grand Canyon National Park or an overseas flight to London, England, vacations are a time for exploration and fun, especially when barrier-free.

Flaws and Regulations for Accessible Air Travel

Before traveling, it may be helpful to become acquainted with the laws and regulations that govern airline transportation systems, structures, services, and accommodations that prohibit discrimination of air travelers with disabilities. These include the following laws and regulations.

The Architectural Barriers Act of 1968, or ABA, 42 U.S.C. 4151l-4157

The Architectural Barriers Act of 1968 established accessibility standards for the design, construction, addition to, or alteration of buildings and facilities that are federally-funded, or leased by Federal agencies.

The ABA also established the Access Board, an independent Federal agency, to enforce the ABA. The Access Board is known as the leading source of information in the United States on accessible design. They maintain design criteria for private and public facilities, transportation vehicles, electronic and information technology, and telecommunications.

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Section 502, 29 U.S.C. 792

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 established the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board (ATBCB), comprised of 11 members of Federal agencies and 11 members of the general public appointed by the President to develop guidelines consistent with the barrier-free design standards published by the American National Standards Institute, or ANSI, known as ANSI A117.1-1980 and titled “Specifications for Making Buildings and Facilities Accessible to, and Usable by, Physically Handicapped People.”

On August 7, 1984, Uniform Federal Accessibility Standards, or UFAS, was published in the FEDERAL REGISTER, 49 FR 31528. The UFAS specifies accessibility in sites, facilities, buildings, housing, routes, surfaces, ramps, lifts, windows, doors, entrances, drinking fountains, toilet stalls, urinals, lavatories, bathtubs, shower stalls, bathing facilities, shower rooms, handrails, alarms, signage, telephones, seating, assembly areas, dwellings, eating spaces, and libraries.

The Air Carrier Access Act of 1986, or ACAA

Passed by Congress in 1986, the Air Carrier Access Act, or ACAA, required the Department of Transportation to develop new regulations for air passengers with disabilities. The ACAA was amended on April 5, 2000. It prohibits discrimination against air travel passengers with disabilities and requires air carriers to accommodate special needs, even for foreign air carriers. The provisions concern physical facilities and services provided to passengers with disabilities.

The law is enforced by Aviation Consumer Protection Division of the U.S. Department of Transportation. The ACAA details the responsibilities of the air carriers, the airport operators, the air travel contractors, and even the travelers. In particular, they address physical barriers which can be overcome; information access for individuals with hearing and vision impairments; and the safe and dignified accommodations of persons with disabilities.

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, or ADA

The pivotal Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, or ADA, signed into law by President George H.W. Bush, made sweeping changes to American life by prohibiting discrimination and ensuring equal opportunity for people with disabilities in transportation, government services, public accommodations, and more.

More than five million private and public establishments in the United States are regulated under the ADA, including restaurants, hotels, theaters, parks, zoos, and amusement parks. Goods and services from these establishments must be offered in an inclusive setting “unless separate or different measures are necessary to ensure equal opportunity.”

The ADA also regulates transportation services provided by airlines as well as bus companies, and railway systems. These facilities, and their services, must be fully accessible to people with disabilities.

Who is covered by the ADA? An individual with a disability is a person who has a physical or substantial limitation of one or more major life activities; has a record of having an impairment; or is regarded as having such an impairment. Major life activities include self-care, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, and working. Cerebral Palsy is just one of many physical or cognitive impairments covered by the ADA.

Other Useful Information

For consumer-friendly guidelines, the Transportation Security Administration provides travel information and has published “Traveler Information: Travelers with Disabilities and Medical Condition” as a guide for travelers with specific concerns, including physical impairment, wheelchairs, CPAPs, BiPAPs and APAPs, Nebulizers, children with disabilities, vision or hearing impairment or loss, to name a few.

The Aviation Consumer Protection and Enforcement Division of the U.S. Department of Transportation regulates air travel compliance, and the Department of Justice handles violations of compliance.

On the Go!

a man in a wheelchair traveling an wonderful road

On the Go!

Transportation, for a person with a disability, is a major concern because when he or she can’t get from place to place, it tends to restrict him or her from participating in other life activities. Advances in technology have made private vehicle travel attainable, and even more preferable. More and more, individuals with a disability are able to modify their vehicles and obtain adaptive driver’s licensure to enhance independence. Whether traveling by air, by bus, on a train or in a wheelchair, travel must be safe and convenient for all.