Airport Fiasco
Robert P. Bennett

A while back I was sitting on an airplane at Ronald Reagan National Airport in Washington D.C. waiting to travel to New York City.   Normally, this would be no big deal.   It's only a 40-minute flight.   However, this time I sat on that airplane, on the runway, for three hours.   I sat staring at the wheelchair symbol on the restroom door, a door about half as wide as my wheelchair, knowing that, even if the entry weren't a problem, the restroom would never accommodate someone who can't stand.   I had to use a bathroom.

Like many paraplegics my urination is on a fixed schedule. I catheterize every eight hours. I was supposed to land in New York at 6 p.m., right on time to empty my bladder. By the time I landed in New York I was four hours late and in a great deal of pain.

After many letters and phone calls with the airline I was sent an apology and a travel voucher for $186, the cost of my round-trip ticket. The airline blamed the incident on unusual circumstances (bad weather in New York) and a breakdown in communication between the in-flight staff and me. I was told the incident never should have happened. I’ve since discovered that such incidents have happened before and there are no safeguards in place to prevent such incidents from happening in the future.

Most of us think that the Federal Aviation Administration oversees the civil rights of airline passengers. This is not the case. Jessie Barksdale, from the FAA Office of Civil Rights says, “Air carrier access is not within the realm of civil rights that the FAA deals with. We only deal with internal disability and accessibility issues as it relates to FAA employees.”

The Department of Transportation (DOT) has the ultimate responsibility for making sure that aircraft are accessible to all passengers. However, the DOT says that passenger comfort is the sole responsibility of the individual airlines.   It seems clear that, when talking about the civil rights of air travelers, a game of “Passing the Buck” starts to develop.  

“The government has never tried to understand mass transit [and its effect on people with disabilities],” says Ralph Jones, a specialist with the NYS Advocates for the Disabled. Perhaps this unwillingness to take responsibility is why, according to the February 2000 Air Travel Consumer Report, released by the DOT, civil rights complaints levied by disabled passengers nearly doubled from December of 1998 to December of 1999.

Despite the fact that some may consider aircraft as places of public accommodation, the American’s with Disabilities Act does not cover air travel. Passengers with disabilities are supposed to be protected under the Air Carriers Access Act of 1986. However, that legislation is older and not as well defined as the ADA. Furthermore, as with the ADA, when the Air Carriers Access Act was passed there wasn’t full agreement about what should be covered.   When the final draft of the legislation was signed into law shorter-range aircraft, those that are used on flights no longer than 3 hours, were largely ignored. Unfortunately those individuals who take trips that are under 3 hours in length do the majority of air travel.

According to Bill Mosley, a public affairs specialist with the DOT, under the Air Carriers Access Act all aircraft are required to carry an aisle chair to help those passengers with motor impairments, but only those aircraft which have two aisles (the longer range wide-bodies) are required to have an accessible restroom. As all of us know, it is virtually impossible to predict when the need to use a restroom will arise. Even if an individual is on a fixed schedule of bodily relief, accidents and emergencies do happen.   Under these circumstances the inability to access a restroom can be disastrous.

“We have on-board wheelchairs on all of our planes,” says Walter Baer, the Manager of Customer Advocacy for Delta Airlines.   “These chairs are designed to assist someone get to and from the lavatory. Our flight attendants are instructed in the use of those chairs.   We’ve gone back on some of our older and smaller planes and added some accessibility features. We can’t replace the entire lavatory module but they now have grab bars and bi-fold doors with lever handles installed.   You won’t be able to get into it with a wheelchair but it will be easier to access. That’s our intention.”

Intention is all well and good but Baer admits that sometimes the ball is dropped. Sometimes flight personnel slip through the airline’s training fingers. They don’t know what equipment is available or they don’t know how to use it. “We’ve taken a number of steps to enhance our training programs.   If there are staff members out there that are not up to par then we follow up on that. And, we rely on consumers to try to find out when and why service break downs happen.”

The inability to access an on-board restroom is not just a problem when the plane is in the air. It also becomes a problem when planes, and passengers, are delayed on the ground. Allowing an aircraft to return to the gate would help solve that problem. However, no one is willing to take the responsibility to create an industry-wide regulation. There is no set policy by either the FAA or the DOT that deals with allowing planes that have left the gate to return when there is an extended delay.

“It isn’t an issue that came up in the advisory committee or during the comment period,” says Bob Ashby, an attorney in the DOT General Council’s Office who helped write the Air Carrier Access Act.   “I have some vague recollection that, following a North West Airlines situation in Detroit a year or two ago, there was some kind of voluntary industry policy created which addressed the issue of long waits on the tarmac. But, I suspect it wasn’t binding.”

The decision about whether to return to the gate is left in the hands of the pilot, who follows the guidelines of the individual airline. Often it is a hard decision to make. The airline companies are competing to achieve the best ‘on time’ record. This means that when a departure window is offered to a pilot he has to take it or risk sitting on the ground for an extended period.   Returning to the gate often can mean losing a place in line for departure. But, not returning to the gate can mean that a passenger with a disability will not be able to access a restroom when needed, and that can be a dangerous situation.

According to Baer, “Any time a flight is delayed we have internal guidelines to deal with it. We have some internal policies about returning to the gate once the plane has departed.   We have policy that states what the acceptable wait time in the plane is. But, each circumstance can change those guidelines.   We rely on the passenger to tell us when there is a problem that needs to be addressed immediately.”   Baer admits that resources are taxed during periods of irregular operation, such as may occur during bad weather or mechanical breakdown, and that people with special needs may suffer.

While it is the responsibility of the individual passenger to make sure that he has enough time before boarding a plane to deal with his own needs, it isn't enough for people to be flexible in their body's maintenance schedule. While it serves the individual’s needs to check to make sure the proper equipment is onboard any plane they intend to fly, it is the responsibility of airline personnel to make sure each aircraft is up to code.

Two issues need to be addressed by the FAA, DOT and individual air carriers: the design of aircraft and the policies under which those aircraft are operated. At the time the Air Carrier Access Act was being written, 10-12 yrs ago, disability groups advocated for accessible restrooms in single aisle as well as double aisle aircraft. As newer aircraft are being manufactured perhaps it is time to revisit that question.   There needs to be uniformity among all planes so that no matter where an individual with special needs travels to he can be assured the same level of service and comfort as his fellow passengers. The air carriers, FAA and DOT need to make sure that every plane carries a wheelchair and has an accessible lavatory. Perhaps it is also time to revisit the policies dealing with extended ground delays and make them uniform throughout the industry. Passenger needs have to be considered when creating this kind of policy. It is unreasonable to believe that every passenger can ‘hold it in’ during extended delays on the ground coupled with travel times of up to three hours.   True accessibility isn't just a question of getting luggage and mobility aides on board effortlessly.   Rather, it is a question of meeting the needs of all passengers.

Going Home Now!

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