Air Travel Accessibility: Are We Really in a Golden Age?

Image Description: Airplane flying among the clouds with a wheelchair falling behind it and coming apart

It’s not news that traveling on airplanes is fraught with challenges for people with disabilities. In late 2021, Disability Advocate Engracia Figueroa died after an airline damaged her customized wheelchair.

Yet, the ABRA Group’s Chief Strategy Officer Michael Swiatek believes that accessible travel is entering a golden age. ABRA has an ownership interest in the two largest airlines in Latin America.

Ken Nakata from Converge Accessibility and Equal Entry CEO and founder Thomas Logan discuss whether this is the case and delve into the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA).

Are We Entering into the Golden Age of Accessibility? 

Thomas Logan: The Chief Strategy Officer of two of Latin America’s largest airlines says we’re entering into the golden age of accessibility. But I have to ask, are we? One of his big points from reading this article is he thinks that government regulations should only be a backstop and that governments must let companies try to solve accessibility.

But he’s also saying that we’re in the golden age or we’re entering the golden age of accessibility. What do you think, Ken?

Ken Nakata: I think that this person doesn’t have a disability or if they do have a disability, they’re not flying in the same kind of plane that the rest of us are flying in. What do you think, Thomas?

Thomas Logan: Yes, actually, this person does have a disability, which makes it a little more shocking, but I think this is part of having a view of the world from a privileged position.

I think, definitely, we know, even from people that we have personal connections with. Stories. I have numerous stories of bad experiences traveling, and they’re all very recent.

So, I’d say we have the opportunity, of course, to enter the Golden Age, but I wouldn’t say that currently, I feel like we’re entering that age.

Ken Nakata: I agree. And Thomas, didn’t you recently read about some other stories just recently, about how it doesn’t seem to be going that great for travelers with disabilities in airlines?

Thomas Logan: Yes, there’s an article from very recently about a wheelchair being broken on a flight, and it’s actually the second time for this woman, Neena Nizar.

Her wheelchair was damaged a second time on a flight, and this was just posted yesterday, October 23rd. The quote is, “My wheelchair is totaled. I’ve had it break before, but not like this.” I wouldn’t say that’s a golden experience to show up somewhere that you are excited to be spending time and you don’t have your wheelchair available to you when you land.

Ken Nakata: I also read that article and I seem to recall that the image that accompanied the article showed her wheelchair in pieces. And I think that there was also a line in there about how passengers watched in horror as the wheelchair fell off the ramp as it was being loaded onto the plane. So, not a great experience.

Thomas Logan: And I think there’s also a story around service animals and being kicked out of an airline lounge. I think part of travel for some people is going into a lounge and finding a quieter place to rest and relax. What did you hear about that story?

Ken Nakata: Yeah, apparently the passenger in this case had a disability that required her to lie down and relax because she had a long layover and that she’s very prone to stress. And traveling is extremely difficult for her.

And when she appeared at the lounge. They didn’t like the fact that she didn’t have the appropriate paperwork, which is something that no accessibility law requires. And the people at the lounge refused her entry into the lounge. She ended up just, if you can imagine this, just lying down on the walking areas outside the gate to her flight.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m a germaphobe when I’m in an airport and the idea of just having to just lie down where everybody’s just walking is just horrible to me.

Thomas Logan: Yes for me too that would be a non-starter and it sounds like the company, Virgin Atlantic says, “As soon as we were made aware of this incident, we sent an urgent reminder to our clubhouse teams to clarify the policy around support dogs, and we’ll be investigating further to improve the way the situation was handled.”

And a few more statements, that’s just something that, from my experience, we can see that this is the response when stories like this come out. But where’s the actual change? Where’s the actual policy or procedures? Like, are the staff in lounges or, you know, getting this training? Are people who are handling equipment on flights, are they receiving training?

Or is it… Just let’s wait till the next story comes out. We break something or we, deny a passenger rights. We’ll just do this press release and apologize, but what are they actually doing to improve it?

Ken Nakata: And this gets back to what, this article that started this whole conversation where the airline executive says, “Oh, well, just leave it to the airlines to take care of it. We don’t really need regulations” and I would counter that and say, “No, we absolutely do!”

Because whatever Virgin Atlantic was doing, they weren’t doing it correctly. If they were training people, they obviously didn’t train them well enough. If they had policies in place, their policies obviously weren’t understood, or they weren’t really there.

And as a consequence, this person ended up getting discriminated against in a horrible way.

Thomas Logan: Yes, I just echo that too, that I think from my life experience working in accessibility. Assuming the companies are going to figure it out and do the right thing, I’ve never seen that. If I haven’t seen it in 20 years, I’m not going to believe it’s happening.

It’s emerging right now. And so I think, obviously, we’ll want the space for companies to innovate and solve these problems in innovative ways. But having regulations and having basic laws around what can and can’t be done in these like civil rights matters that to us are so clear — yes, we need that as a regulation so that it’s not apologize and move on.

What is the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA)?

Ken Nakata: What we’re talking about, Thomas, actually raises a really interesting legal point because the coverage of airlines and lounges is, and these other areas within an airport isn’t something that I think most people have a good grasp on. And even I don’t have a good grasp on where they fall legally.

There’s this law, the Air Carrier Access Act and that obviously covers things like airplanes and jetways and the things that we think of as an airport. And then we’ve got the Americans with Disabilities Act, which covers private businesses and state and local governments. But there’s a substantial overlap between what we think of as the ADA and what we think of as the Air Carrier Access Act.

And as these airports start looking different and offering different things, they start to overlap in a big way. And so that example of the person who was kicked out of the lounge is a really interesting one because an airport lounge basically looks like a restaurant, but it’s in an airport. It’s staffed by airline personnel and you don’t get into that airport without going through the airline.

Now, is that lounge covered by Title III of the ADA or is it covered by the Air Carrier Access Act? My understanding is, it’s covered by the Air Carrier Access Act and not the ADA. But, I could be wrong on that. Even though it looks like a restaurant, it feels like a restaurant, you get into it like a restaurant, they serve you like a restaurant, but apparently, it’s not a restaurant.

Thomas Logan: Let’s open that up to maybe someone reading this article or listening to this audio file, if you know, let us know that clarification, I think as a non-legal person you just want to think, “Okay, well under either of these I want that experience to be accessible.”

But from the legal perspective, it sounds good to be clear on which law applies and also make sure that is improved in the future. So, let’s end with how you make a complaint under the ACAA.

How do you make a complaint under the ACAA?

Ken Nakata: That’s the big difference also between the ADA and the Air Carrier Access Act. Under the Air Carrier Access Act, you have to file a complaint with the Department of Transportation. Under the ADA, you can file a complaint with the Department of Justice or you can go into court and privately sue the entity that you’re suing.

But that same private right of action doesn’t exist under the Air Carrier Access Act. You have to go through the Department of Transportation first and that’s unfortunate because it is a basic civil rights issue we’re talking about.

Thomas Logan: Yes, and I think I don’t blame any passenger who experiences this discriminatory treatment for going to the media. Also, maybe even first, maybe they don’t even know that this is the process for logging this complaint.

I guess just from some of the other conversations we’ve had, we’ve talked about recently logging a complaint with an educational institution through the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) process. As a general member of the public knowing how and where to go make these complaints, I would pretty much presume is not standard training for people.

Learning about this process, I think it’s great, but I do think also that there is a prevalence of stories in the media where people have thought, “I’m just going to go to the media on this story. And I do hope that in addition to going to the media, they are logging in under this process as well.”

Ken Nakata: Right. Well, as Thomas said at the beginning, I don’t think we’re entering the golden age of accessibility.

Thomas Logan: I still hope we will sometime in the future, but we need to see more work. Let’s keep working!

Ken Nakata: We need a lot more work.


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Thomas Logan
Owner | NYC, USA
Founder | Accessibility Consultant | Global Speaker | ADA WCAG Section 508 | A11y | Accessibility VR & A11yNYC Organizer

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