Airline Travel Set to Become Easier for People With Disabilities — Eventually

Using the bathroom on an airplane can be nearly impossible for someone with paralysis if they use a wheelchair for mobility. That — along with various other issues, like the risk of having your wheelchair lost or damaged — can turn flying into an ordeal that many avoid at all costs.

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) is trying to help. On the recent 33rd anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the DOT announced a new rule that requires airline lavatories to be more accessible.

Specifically, the rule says airlines have to make lavatories on new single-aisle aircraft large enough for passengers with disabilities and their attendants to use them.

Now for the bad news: The rule only applies to new aircraft that will be delivered beginning in 2026, and existing planes don’t have to be retrofitted. Still, this is progress.

The rule says airlines have to make lavatories on new single-aisle aircraft large enough for passengers with disabilities and their attendants to use them.

“Traveling can be stressful enough without worrying about being able to access a restroom,” says U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg in a statement. The rule will “make airplane bathrooms larger and more accessible, ensuring travelers in wheelchairs are afforded the same access and dignity as the rest of the traveling public,” he says. 

My take: Although I walk with crutches most of the time and thus don’t face the same problems on airplanes that people who use wheelchairs do, I can imagine the difficulty of not being able to go to the bathroom on an hours-long flight. The rule will make this particularly onerous form of travel easier for people living with paralysis. Still, there’s no telling how soon it will be widely implemented and whether there will be adequate enforcement.

‘Intolerable’ Conditions

While accessible lavatories have been required on twin-aisle aircraft for decades, there previously was no such requirement for single-aisle aircraft.

That’s a problem, because single-aisle aircraft have increasingly been used for long-haul flights as they have become more fuel efficient. The percentage of flights between 1,500 and 3,000 miles flown by single-aisle aircraft increased from less than 40% in 1991 to 86% in 2021, according to the DOT. In many cases, these flights last four hours or longer.

Current conditions for people with disabilities are ones that “passengers without disabilities would justifiably consider intolerable,” the rule says.

“The inability to safely access and use the lavatory on long flights can impact the dignity of passengers with disabilities and deter them from traveling by air, limiting their independence and freedom to travel,” the rule says.

A recent survey by Paralyzed Veterans of America and 11 other veterans’ and disability advocacy organizations found that 56% of respondents reported that inaccessible lavatories were reason enough to choose not to fly unless absolutely necessary. “These are conditions that passengers without disabilities would justifiably consider intolerable,” the rule says.

Jani Nayar, the executive director of the Society for Accessible Travel & Hospitality, tells TwP that the rule is sorely needed.

“There are lots of flights where people have to dehydrate themselves or use a catheter or a leg bag, which obviously makes them very reluctant to fly,” she says. “This rule has opened up more opportunities to travel.” However, she notes that airlines have not committed to retrofitting existing aircraft, nor does the the rule require them to.

Rule Requires Lavatory Improvements — But Not Right Away

Under the rule:

  • Lavatories on new single-isle aircraft must have grab bars, accessible faucets and controls, accessible call buttons and door locks, minimum obstruction to the passage of an on-board wheelchair (OBW), and adequate toe clearance.

  • An OBW must facilitate safe transfer to and from an aircraft seat, such as by having locking wheels and adequate supports; permit someone with a disability to partially enter the laboratory while facing forward and transfer to the toilet; and fit entirely within the lavatory so the door can be closed. (Or, until a lavatory is expanded, the airline must provide a “visual barrier” if requested.)

The rule also calls for training in OBW use and storage, and procedures for handling sharps and bio-waste.

Other Signs of Progress

In its announcement, the DOT trumpeted other efforts to make U.S. infrastructure more accessible. For example, the agency says it:

  • has awarded billions of dollars to modernize airport terminals, including adding wheelchair ramps, accessible restrooms, etc.

  • awarded nearly $700 million through the Biden Administration’s All Stations Accessibility Program last December to retrofit old rail and subway stations with elevators, ramps, and other improvements.

  • has begun “laying the preliminary groundwork” for a potential future rule that would address passengers staying in their own wheelchairs when they fly.

  • is working on rules that would require better training for airline staff who physically assist passengers with disabilities or handle battery-powered wheelchairs or scooters.

  • is working with industry, academia, and federal partners to ensure that the vehicles of the future – including automated vehicles, electric vehicles, and associated charging infrastructure – are designed inclusively.

While these efforts are good in theory, the DOT didn’t provide specifics for any of them or say when they would produce demonstrable improvements for people living with disabilities. TwP

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