US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has announced the latest actions taken by the US Department of Transportation (USDOT) to help protect airline passengers. The updates are significant, with the first-ever Airline Passengers with Disabilities Bill of Rights, and the issuing of a notice to airlines that they should seat young children next to a parent.
“Today’s announcements are the latest steps toward ensuring an air travel system that works for everyone,” said Buttigieg. “Whether you’re a parent expecting to sit together with your young children on a flight, a traveller with a disability navigating air travel, or a consumer traveling by air for the first time in a while, you deserve safe, accessible, affordable, and reliable airline service.”
These announcements come at a time when consumer complaints against airlines are up more than 300% above pre-pandemic levels.
The PRM Bill of Rights
The Airline Passengers with Disabilities Bill of Rights is designed to be an easy-to-use summary of the fundamental rights and laws concerning air travellers with disabilities under the Air Carrier Access Act, whether physical or mental impairments. The USDOT says the bill will empower air travellers with disabilities to understand and assert their rights, and help ensure that US and foreign air carriers and their contractors uphold those rights. The Bill of Rights applies to all flights of US airlines, and to flights to or from the United States by foreign airlines.
The bill includes 10 sections, including the right to be treated with dignity and respect; the right to receive information about services and aircraft capabilities and limitations; the right to receive information in an accessible format; the right to accessible airport facilities; the right to assistance at airports; the right to travel with an assistive device or service animal; and the right to resolution of a disability-related issue.
Three sections will be of the most interest to the aircraft interiors sector, with the right to assistance on the aircraft covering aspects such as addressing any needs for priority boarding, additional time or assistance for boarding, stowing accessibility equipment, and getting seated.
The Right to Receive Seating Accommodations stipulates that airlines must provide specific seats to PRM passengers who identify to airline personnel as needing the seat, if the seat exists on the same class of service on the aircraft. Relevant seat features include movable aisle armrests to help passengers access the seat from an aisle chair; bulkhead or other seats to aid passengers travelling with a service animal; and greater leg room for passengers with a fused or immobilised leg/s.
This section also covers adjoining seats for a companion providing assistance, such as a personal care attendant who performs a function that is not required to be performed by airline personnel (for example assisting a passenger with a disability with eating); a reader for a passenger who is blind or low vision; an interpreter for a passenger who is deaf or hard of hearing; or a safety assistant if a passenger with a disability cannot assist with their own evacuation.
For passengers not specified above, airlines must provide a seat assignment that best accommodates his or her disability if the passenger meets the airline’s procedures.
Airlines must provide seating accommodations using one of three methods: the block method, the priority method, or preboarding (if the airline does not provide advance seat assignments). The USDOT has provided a Seating Accommodation Methods page with information about these seating methods, the seating methods of the largest US airlines and their operating partners, and seating methods of certain foreign air carriers.
The bill also addresses the right to accessible aircraft features, building on the requirement that new aircraft delivered to US airlines after April 1992 and to foreign airlines after May 2010 must have certain accessible features. These features include movable aisle armrests on half of the aisle seats, if the aircraft has 30 or more seats; priority stowage space for wheelchairs in the cabin for aircraft with 100 or more seats; at least one accessible lavatory, if the aircraft has more than one aisle; and an on-board wheelchair, if the aircraft has an accessible lavatory, or the passenger gives the airline advance notice that he or she can use an inaccessible lavatory and needs an on-board chair to reach it.
The USDOT has approved some airlines to meet the purpose of this requirement by alternative means that provide substantially the same or greater accessibility to passengers with disabilities.
As an aside, the stipulation that there should be at least one accessible lavatory, if the aircraft has more than one aisle, already seems a little outdated, given the surge in single-aisle aircraft flying, and the many PRM-friendly lav options on the market.
The bill was developed using feedback from the Air Carrier Access Act Advisory Committee, US bodies which include representatives of passengers with disabilities, national disability organisations, air carriers, airport operators, contractor service providers, aircraft manufacturers, wheelchair manufacturers, and a national veterans organisation representing disabled veterans.
Calling on airlines to seat parents with their children
The USDOT’s Office of Aviation Consumer Protection (OACP) also issued a notice urging US airlines to ensure that children who are aged 13 or younger are seated next to an accompanying adult with no additional charge. The Department says that although it receives a lower number of complaints from consumers about family seating than some other flight issues, there continue to be complaints of instances where young children, including a child as young as 11 months, are not seated next to an accompanying adult.
Later this year, OACP will initiate a review of airline policies and consumer complaints filed with the Department. If airlines’ seating policies and practices are found to be barriers to a child sitting next to an adult family member or other accompanying adult family member, the Department says it will be prepared for potential actions consistent with its authorities.
Addressing consumer complaints and refunds
The latest Air Travel Consumer Report, released last month, shows consumer complaints against airlines are up more than 300% above pre-pandemic levels.
Similar to 2020 and 2021, refunds continue to be the highest category of complaints received by the Department, and flight problems the second highest.
To process and investigate these voluminous complaints, USDOT increased staff handling consumer complaints by 38%. OACP has initiated investigations against more than 20 airlines for failing to provide timely refunds. One of these investigations resulted in the highest penalty ever assessed against an airline.
In addition, OACP continues to monitor airline delays and cancellations to ensure airline compliance with consumer protection requirements. USDOT is considering future action in this area to better protect consumers. USDOT also intends, later this year, to issue consumer protection rulemakings on airline ticket refunds and transparency of airline ancillary fees.
Consumers may file air travel consumer or civil rights complaints with the USDOT if they believe their rights have been violated. Additional information and resources on the rights of consumers, including information on how to file a complaint, can be found here.