About 1 in 4 Americans have a disability, and anyone can become disabled at any time. And our transportation systems are the vital networks that connect Americans with disabilities, including disabled veterans and older Americans, to family, friends and their communities.
We’ve made enormous progress in accessible transportation since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. Bus travel is more accessible. Train travel is more accessible. Cruise ship travel is more accessible.
But commercial air travel is not. It has been exempted from the ADA, and despite the Air Carrier Access Act, whose intent is to promote accessibility, our air travel system has not done nearly enough to ensure Americans with disabilities have safe, efficient and reliable travel options.
This should concern us all.
For many of the 25 million Americans who have mobility issues requiring accommodations while flying, air travel is a distant dream. That future dream needs to replace the nightmare that air travelers with mobility issues face today.
They arrive at airports and often experience protracted waits for check-in assistance and wheelchairs. They’re frequently subjected to mishandled security screenings by Transportation Security Administration agents who would benefit from more training on the needs of travelers with disabilities. “Stressful,” “painful” and “humiliating” are how people with disabilities repeatedly describe their airport experience.
When they arrive at their gate, passengers with disabilities are forced to give up their wheelchairs. Airlines are alone in requiring passengers to abandon their wheelchairs. You can stay in your wheelchair on a bus, a train or a ship. It should be no different for airplanes.
Delta Flight Products is proving that airlines can safely accommodate wheelchairs on flights without affecting the bottom line. The airline is pioneering a prototype for accessible seating areas where wheelchairs can be easily and safely secured in an airplane without losing any seats.
Wheelchairs on airplanes would eliminate two serious risks for passengers with disabilities. The risk of serious physical injury when they’re transferred by airline personnel or contractors to a seat from airline-issued wheelchairs designed to fit in an airplane aisle — wheelchairs that are too small for most individuals and easily tip over. And the risk of damage to their wheelchairs when stowed in an airplane luggage bay.
Each day, an average of 31 wheelchairs are damaged when stored by airline personnel or contractors. Last year, there were more than 11,000 incidents of damaged wheelchairs. In addition to leaving travelers with disabilities without their mobility devices, sometimes for months, which allow them to function in the world safely, damaged wheelchairs can also result in lost wages and health complications.
Health complications are a big concern for airplane passengers with mobility issues. Most domestic flights are not equipped with bathrooms accessible for people with disabilities. This leads many flyers with disabilities to put their health at risk by not eating or drinking sometimes for hours in advance of a flight to eliminate the need to use the bathroom. Others use catheters, which can be uncomfortable and painful. Too many people with disabilities simply choose not to fly at all — an unacceptable outcome.
Progress is being made. Recently issued federal regulations will require new larger single-aisle planes to have accessible bathrooms for people with disabilities beginning in 2035, but smaller aircraft will still have no truly accessible lavatories. We can — and we must — move faster. We’ve been talking about accessible air travel for more than 40 years. It’s well past time to complete the mission. We need to move at jet speed.
Moving at jet speed on fully accessible travel would benefit us all, not just the 61 million Americans who identify as being disabled. Consumers with disabilities and their families activate more than $22 billion in buying power and have $490 billion in disposable income. Making air travel more accessible to more of them makes good business sense. More accessible leisure and business travel would mean more passengers for airlines and more planes sold by airplane manufacturers, as well as more jobs and opportunity for everyone. Not to mention the benefits to society of having a more inclusive world in which people with disabilities can fully participate.
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The U.S. is the world’s largest commercial air travel market with around 665 million passengers boarding planes here in 2021. Now it’s time to become the world’s most accessible air travel market as well.
We’re calling on all stakeholders — government, airports, airlines, airplane manufacturers — to work alongside disability advocates and commit to building an air travel system that works for everyone no later than the 40th anniversary of the Air Carrier Access Act in 2026.
What does this air travel system look like?
Ultra-accessible airports. Visually accessible airport announcements. Wheelchairs on airplanes. Accommodations for service animals. Accessible bathrooms on all flights. Braille placards for seat numbers and bathrooms. Accessible infotainment systems. And everything else to make airplanes fully accessible and welcoming for people with disabilities. Air travel would no longer be a distant dream but an everyday reality for people with disabilities.
Change is never easy. But change is always possible. We’re a nation of doers, and together we will build an equitable air travel system.
Kendra Davenport is president and CEO of Easterseals. Rodney Slater was secretary of transportation under President Bill Clinton.
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