A bill of rights for airline passengers with disabilities and enhanced disability training for Transportation Security Administration officers, among other changes, are on the way under a new federal law.

President Donald Trump signed legislation late last week to reauthorize funding for the Federal Aviation Administration for five years. Contained within that package are an increase in civil penalties for bodily harm to passengers with disabilities or damage to wheelchairs and mobility aids, creation of an advisory committee to recommend consumer protection improvements and the development of an “Airline Passengers with Disabilities Bill of Rights.”

“I think it’s a very good message to the Department of Transportation and the airline industry that Congress is very concerned about air travel for passengers with disabilities,” said Heather Ansley, associate executive director of government relations for Paralyzed Veterans of America. “We have a lot of good opportunities in here to reconsider regulations, get out education and get the department to have regular conversations about passengers with disabilities.”

Disability rights advocates say that air travel can be extremely unpleasant for people with disabilities whether it’s the lack of a wheelchair accessible restroom on board or the sensory overload of going through a crowded security line.
Carol Tyson, government affairs liaison for the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, said she’s pleased about the mandate for input from the disability community.   “It’s incredibly important to have a voice and to have access to people with decision-making capabilities,” Tyson said.

Tyson, whose hand was amputated, sometimes travels with a prosthetic and a cane. She said her air travel experiences have varied tremendously. She recalled once being told she couldn’t sit in an exit row and other times being singled out in the security line.

While airports are subject to the Americans with Disabilities Act, air travel is governed by the often less familiar Air Carrier Access Act. The to-be-developed bill of rights requires that “plain language” be used to spell out the rights of passengers with disabilities, including receiving timely assistance and seating accommodations if requested. The law says airline employees and contractors must undergo training on the bill of rights.

The legislation also requires the TSA to revise its training for screening passengers with disabilities in the next six months. The agency must address proper screening and any particular sensitivities a traveler with a disability might have, including to touch, pressure and sound. Signs must be posted at security checkpoints advising on how to complain of screening mistreatment based on disability.

In addition, the law directs the Department of Transportation to set a final rule for service animals on planes in the next 18 months, including a service animal definition and minimum standards.

What’s more, the law requires studies of airport accessibility best practices and the feasibility of someday allowing in-cabin wheelchair restraint systems so that people could remain in their wheelchairs in flight rather than having to transfer to an airplane seat.

“That’s something that a lot of people who use wheelchairs would like to see,” said Ansley with Paralyzed Veterans of America. “That’s certainly how you travel on a train or bus or any other mode of transportation.”