The Air Carrier Access Act

Protecting passengers with disabilities

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Read Myths and Facts about the Air Carrier Access Act(ACAA).

Myths V. Facts

In 1986, Congress passed the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), which guaranteed that people with disabilities would receive consistent and nondiscriminatory treatment when traveling by air. All domestic and foreign airlines doing business in the United States are covered by the provisions of the ACAA.

In 1990, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) issued regulations to enforce the ACAA. These regulations set out certain requirements for the airlines. While a few of these regulations require the design of the aircraft features to be more accessible, most require airlines to modify their practices to ensure that passengers with disabilities do not encounter discrimination.

Nondiscrimination Requirements

An airline may not refuse to transport a passenger with a disability except on the basis of safety, nor may they limit the number of passengers with disabilities on a flight. An airline that denies transport must specify in writing the basis for refusal within 10 calendar days.

An airline may not require a passenger with a disability to travel with another person except in very limited circumstances. If the airline overrides a passenger’s decision to travel without an assistant, the airline may not charge for the assistant’s transportation. However, the airline is not required to find an assistant for a passenger with a disability.

If a passenger with a disability chooses to travel with a personal care attendant or safety assistant but the airline does not require the passenger to do so, then the airline may charge for the transportation of that person.

Aircraft Accessibility Features

All new aircraft and any aircraft that undergoes replacement of cabin interior elements, lavatories, or seats must meet these accessibility requirements:
  • Aircraft with 30 or more passenger seats will have movable armrests on at least one half of aisle seats, proportionately distributed throughout all classes of service, which will be made available to passengers with mobility impairments.
  • Aircraft with 100 or more passenger seats shall have a priority space in the cabin for stowage of at least one folding or collapsible manual wheelchair.
  • Aircraft with more than one aisle must have at least one accessible lavatory that allows a person with a disability to enter, maneuver within as necessary to use all lavatory facilities, and leave by means of the aircraft’s on-board wheelchair.
  • Aircraft with more than 60 passenger seats with an accessible lavatory will have an on-board wheelchair.
  • Aircraft with more than 60 passenger seats will provide an on-board wheelchair on request for access to an inaccessible lavatory.

Advance Notice Requirements

An airline may require up to 48-hours advance notice and one-hour advance check-in for the following reasons:
  • Transportation for a power wheelchair on an aircraft with fewer than 60 seats.
  • Provision of hazardous materials packaging for batteries or other assistive devices that are required to have such packaging.
  • Special situations such as oxygen, incubator, hook-up for a respirator, or accommodation for a passenger who must travel by stretcher.
  • Accommodation for 10 or more individuals with disabilities traveling as a group, e.g., a sports team.
  • Provision for an on-board wheelchair on an aircraft with more than 60 seats without an accessible lavatory.
If advance notice is not given, air carriers shall provide the service if they are able to do so with reasonable efforts and without delaying the flight.

Stowage of Assistive Devices

Airlines must allow wheelchairs and other assistive devices to be surrendered and returned as close as possible to the boarding door of the aircraft (generally on the jet bridge) and have priority over other luggage in the baggage compartment. Battery-powered wheelchairs shall be accepted as baggage as long as the aircraft’s compartment size permits stowage. Batteries are not to be separated from wheelchairs unless necessary to meet hazardous materials rules. Airlines will provide battery packaging upon request.

Assistive devices are to be returned to the passenger in the same condition in which they are received. Airlines cannot require an individual to sign a waiver for damage or loss of a wheelchair or assistive device. Instead, the airline must cover the cost of repairing or replacing damaged and lost equipment.

Passengers using personal ventilators or respirators are permitted to use their own equipment on board the aircraft.

Assistive devices may be stored in overhead compartments and under seats consistent with carry-on baggage rules. If a passenger chooses to pre-board and the on-board stowage area will accommodate a foldable, collapsible wheelchair, the passenger’s wheelchair may be stored with priority over other passengers’ and flight attendants’ carry-on baggage. The passenger may also have the option to have the wheelchair strapped to a passenger seat.

Boarding and Deplaning Assistance

Passengers who identify as a person with a disability at the gate and needing additional time or assistance to board, be seated, or stow accessibility equipment must be given the opportunity to preboard.
Airlines must help passengers with disabilities in boarding, deplaning, making flight connections, and transporting between gates.

Boarding must be available by level entry jet bridge, ramp, or on planes with 19 or more seats a mechanical lift at commercial airports with 10,000 or more annual enplanements.

Airline or contract personnel are not required to hand carry a passenger on or off the plane but can employ this method if evacuating the aircraft due to an emergency.

Passengers may not be left unattended in a ground wheelchair or boarding/aisle chair in which the passenger is not independently mobile for more than 30 minutes.

Seating Accommodations

Passengers with disabilities may not be excluded by airlines from setting in any aircraft seat except as required by safety regulations. For example, FAA regulations require that people in exit row seats meet certain criteria that may deny some people with disabilities from setting in these rows.

Airlines are required to provide upon request seats with movable armrests to passengers who use aisle chairs and cannot transfer over a fixed armrest; seats next to each other for passengers traveling with personal-care attendants, readers, or interpreters; and bulkhead or other appropriate seat for an individual traveling with a service animal or a passenger with a fused or immobilized leg.

An airline is not required to provide more than one seat to a passenger with a disability unless that passenger purchased multiple seats nor are they required to provide a passenger with a disability a seat in a class of service (e.g., first class, business, coach) different than the one they purchased.

Service Animals

An airline must allow a service animal to accompany a passenger with a disability unless the animal presents a safety risk, is too large to be accommodated, or causes a significant disruption. A service animal is defined as a dog of any breed or type that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a passenger with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.

Airline personnel may make two inquiries to determine whether an animal qualifies as a service animal:

1. Is the animal required to accompany the passenger because of a disability; and
2. What work or task the animal has been trained to perform.

If a passenger with a disability seeks to travel with a service animal, the airline may require the passenger to provide a current, completed U.S. Department of Transportation Service Animal Air Transportation Form 48 hours in advance of the flight. Check your airline’s website for further information about traveling with a service animal.

Training of Airline Personnel and Contractors

A critical element of these procedural requirements is training. Airlines operating aircraft with 19 or more seats must train “to proficiency” all of their personnel who deal with the traveling public. Airlines must also ensure that that their contractors who deal with the public are trained as well.

For personnel who provide boarding and deplaning assistance, they must be trained on the equipment used and procedures that will safeguard the safety and dignity of passengers with disabilities.