This October, the Air Carrier Access Act of 1986 (ACAA) celebrated its 36th anniversary. The ACAA (Public Law 99–435) prohibits discrimination against persons with disabilities in commercial air transportation. Airlines are required to provide passengers with disabilities with many types of assistance, including wheelchair or other guided assistance to board, deplane, or connect to another flight, and seating accommodation assistance that meets passenger’s disability-related needs, as well as assistance with the loading and stowing of assistive devices. After a lengthy rulemaking process that included regulatory negotiations involving representatives of the disability community and the airline industry, the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) issued a final ACAA rule in March 1990, which has been amended 15 times by the USDOT to further improve access to transportation facilities and services.
The Centers for Disease Control estimates that 61 million adults in the U.S. live with a disability, which includes impairment in mobility, cognition, hearing, vision, independent living, and self-care.
Air travel for people with disabilities can be exceptionally challenging if airport facilities are not accessible and reasonable accommodations are not made, as in the most recent amendment to the Air Carrier Access Amendments Act (ACAA) of 2021. This bill expands provisions prohibiting discrimination against disabled individuals by an air carrier. Specifically, it lists certain actions that an air carrier must take or may not take concerning a disabled individual. Despite these amendments, people with disabilities, including veterans, continue to experience significant barriers with traveling in air transportation, such as damaged assistive devices; inaccessible aircraft, lavatories, communication media, delayed assistance; the treatment of service animals, inadequate disability cultural competency, and a lack of suitable seating accommodations.
The ACAA requires air carriers to designate at least one Complaint Resolution Official (CRO) at every airport they serve. Under the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Aviation Consumer Protection section, it is stated: If you encounter a disability-related issue related to an airline accommodation or service, you can request to speak with the Complaint Resolution Official (CRO) or a supervisor. A CRO is the airline’s expert on disability-related issues in air travel and has the authority to resolve complaints on behalf of the airline.’ Every airline must have a CRO available by telephone or in-person during operating hours. The CRO must be accessible via a TTY for passengers who are deaf or hard of hearing.
Making air travel more accessible to people with disabilities is about being inclusive and enabling everyone to appreciate the freedom of movement that air travel offers. Safe, accessible travel for all air passengers, including those with disabilities, is a commitment to be made by all air carriers. An Open Doors Organization 2020 Market Study on Adult Travelers with Disabilities, found that between 2018-2019, passengers with disabilities are a growing segment of the air travel industry, and nearly 15 million people with disabilities took 29.6 million trips by air, generating $11 billion in spending.
While the industry has had standards for persons traveling with disabilities for quite some time, there are still disparities. A key area of concern from the disability community is the damage to mobility aids, particularly to wheelchairs, or their loss, during air transportation. When a traveler is confronted with the loss, damage or destruction of their mobility aid their safety and well-being are put at risk. Replacements are not always provided; if they are, they are often unsuitable for the person’s needs. Other key issues of concern include toileting at airports and onboard the aircraft; transferring on and off the aircraft; seating in the cabin, boarding and disembarking processes, and the transport of medical equipment.
In July 2022 U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg announced actions taken by the USDOT to help further protect airline passengers and published the Airline Passengers with Disabilities Bill of Rights. The Airline Passengers with Disabilities Bill of Rights summarizes the fundamental rights of air travelers with disabilities under the ACAA designed to empower them to understand and assert their rights and help ensure that U.S. and foreign air carriers and their contractors uphold those rights. It was developed using feedback for the ACAA Advisory Committee, which includes passengers with disabilities, national disability organizations, air carriers, airport operators, contractor service providers, aircraft manufacturers, wheelchair manufacturers, and a national veterans organization representing disabled veterans.
Accessible Services at New York Airports
The New York metropolitan region is served by John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK), LaGuardia Airport (LGA), and Newark Liberty International (EWR). Each airport is wheelchair accessible, and assistance services are provided free to disabled passengers, per the Air Carrier Access Act. If you need assistance, Customer Care Representatives (in red jackets) are available throughout terminals to assist passengers with check-in, ground transportation, locating wheelchair providers, and other travel needs. In addition, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PANYNJ) has prepared information to inform passengers with disabilities about vital services and programs available at all three metropolitan New York airports.
TSA Cares is a dedicated helpline that provides information on the screening procedures that specifically pertain to those with disabilities, medical conditions, and other circumstances. TSA Passenger Support Specialists (PSS) are Transportation Security Officers (TSO) who have received advanced training in assisting passengers with disabilities to guide them through the airport security checkpoint.
John Morris, the Founder of WheelChairTravel.org, said in a recent interview with Metropolitan Airport News that the training of every TSO to be a PSS is very exciting, “The idea is that everyone will be equipped with the knowledge to provide that degree of service to disabled passengers, and that’s great.”
Passengers can request assistance by calling the TSA CARES helpline at (855) 787-2227 at least 72 hours before departure with their travel dates, flight information, and the assistance needed, or via e-mail at TSA-ContactCenter@dhs.gov.
For in-flight or wheelchair assistance from the curb to the flight, or if not accompanied by, or met at the airport by someone, contact your airline in advance about specific needs.
The Sunflower Lanyard for Hidden Disabilities program was first developed at Gatwick International Airport in London in 2016. Terminal 4 at JFK airport was the first airport terminal in the Northeast to offer these lanyards for people with hidden disabilities (those who do not have any physical signs of a disability), such as autism, dementia, hearing loss, brain injury, speech difficulties, visual limitations, aging-related decline, COPD, PTSD, ADHD, and more. The lanyard, a simple sunflower image on a green background, is intended to discreetly communicate to staff that passengers wearing the lanyard have a hidden disability and, as a result, may need extra help or time, or assistance. The sunflower lanyard does not offer fast track or queue jump during your terminal journey, but staff members are trained to spot the lanyards and to be mindful of supporting passengers who wear them. Passengers may request a sunflower lanyard at :
- JFK International Airport – the Welcome Center in the Arrivals Hall and the Traveler’s Aid desk in Departures.
- LaGuardia Airport – pre-security Welcome Center locations Marine Air Terminal A Welcome Center in arrivals; Terminal B Welcome Center HOV Level 1 and Level 1; Terminal C Welcome Center Arrivals Level
- Newark Liberty International Airport – pre-security Welcome Center locations at Terminal A, Welcome Center at Level 2; Terminal B Welcome Center at Level 1; Terminal C Welcome Center at Level 1.
For people with hidden disabilities, entering an airport can often raise stress levels, as they are inherently unfamiliar, noisy environments with long lines and crowds. While accommodations for disabilities that are visible can be made for people impacted by mobility, hearing loss, and vision impairment, those with hidden disabilities may struggle with anxiety, change, transitional situations, social skills, and communication. Portable sensory kits with plush play equipment, texture, and color can help to alleviate these challenges, creating a sense of calm for passengers who are overstimulated. It is typical that someone with a disability travels with at least one adult or family member, meaning that at least one other person is affected by the stress of traveling with a disability.
Passengers with hidden disabilities who are traveling through the JFK International Arrivals Terminal 4, and those who are traveling with them, who need more information about sensory kits and lanyards, or who are unsure about amenities for the disabled are advised to e-mail: email@example.com for further assistance, and somebody will respond to assist them to the best of their capabilities.
“At JFKIAT, fostering a safe, accessible, and welcoming environment for all travelers within Terminal 4 is of the highest priority,” said Roel Huinink, CEO of JFKIAT, the operator of Terminal 4 at John F. Kennedy International Airport. “From leveraging artificial intelligence to assist individuals who are blind or visually impaired, to holding training classes for guide dogs, and bridging the gap for those with hidden disabilities who may need additional space or time, and more, our initiatives are working to provide essential resources, care, and assistance that help to ensure all individuals feel supported throughout their entire journey, from curb to gate.”
JFKIAT Terminal 4 maintains a fleet of equipment to assist in the boarding and deplaning all passengers whose flight departs/arrives at a remote parking area instead of a Gate at the terminal. All buses utilized for remote parking operations are equipped with wheelchair ramps to allow for quick and seamless bus boarding for disabled passengers requiring wheelchairs. Regarding transit from the bus to the aircraft (or vice versa), T4 utilized its Mobile Jetbridge Units or Ambulift units to assist. The Mobile Jetbridge is a product designed by ‘Aviramp’ that allows all passengers (disabled or not) to ascend/descend a ramp from the main aircraft door. The Ambulift is a vehicle that has the ability to raise the passenger compartment from ground level to meet the door of an aircraft which would allow for a passenger to be safely lowered down to ground level.
Guided Vision Assistance via AIRA Access; Artificial Intelligence Remote Assistance (AIRA) is a mobile app designed for blind or low vision customers to navigate independently with the assistance of a Live Remote ‘Agent’. This complimentary service is available at all access points, terminals, and AirTrain stations; however, it is not available at TSA/CBP checkpoint screening areas. All you need to do is download the complementary app on a smartphone. The ‘agent’ on the phone will assist you and know what is in front or near you with the use of the camera, GPS, and other web data on your phone to provide visual descriptions on demand. To download the AIRA app, go to www.aira.io
Travelers Aid is an internationally recognized non-profit organization contracted by the Port Authority of NY & NJ to provide various services to passengers at JFK International and Newark Liberty International Airports. Travelers Aid assists passengers who experience problems such as missed airline connections, flight delays, and lost luggage. Their information desks are staffed by a group of dedicated volunteers (in blue vests/blazers) who can guide travelers with answers to questions about the airport or the New York metro area. In addition, the Travelers Aid professional staff manages the volunteer program and offers social service support to passengers encountering challenges at the airport. Services include customer service and airport information; guidance for travelers with unexpected challenges; meet and assist; social service and referrals.
Jane Mrosko, the program manager at Travelers Aid, JFK International Airport, said, “The Port Authority really values these types of programs, and they show their care for passenger’s well-being and safety.”
John Morris – Founder, WheelchairTravel.org
John Morris is the Founder of WheelchairTravel.org, the world’s largest accessible travel resource that covers a vast amount of information that involves every aspect of inclusive travel for disabled people.
In 2012 a car accident laid claim to three of Morris’ limbs. Before his disability, Morris was a world traveler, and travel was his first true love. More than a year after his accident, he took his first trip to Los Angeles to see his alma mater, Florida State University, win the college football national championship. But planning the trip was difficult, and Morris found that the internet was filled with unreliable information about traveling with a disability, and nothing that he read prepared him for what traveling with a wheelchair is like. After traveling for more than a year, he launched WheelchairTravel.org.
Morris only writes about the places he has visited and the experiences he has had from the seat of his wheelchair. He is committed to providing his readers with the tools to access the world independently or with family, friends, or caregivers. He is also deeply interested in disability advocacy, diversity, inclusion, and visibility. He works each day to engage with business and government leaders to create a world that is more accessible to everyone, as well as to educate readers about what to expect when traveling with a mobility impairment.
In a recent interview with Metropolitan Airport News, John Morris shared his personal experiences of his travels through New York metropolitan airports and the mobility challenges faced by disabled passengers.
“One of the foremost challenges,” said Morris, “is that each carrier is responsible for delivering the accessibility services, particularly services that mobility impaired travelers rely on…wheelchairs, boarding assistance, handling of personal mobility equipment. All of this is the responsibility of the airline, particularly in airport assistance and getting to the gate, which is handled by contractors. There isn’t a consistency of experience. But there are things that travelers can do to head off the challenges, and chief among them is to inform the airline in advance of your travels and specific needs.” While Morris said this doesn’t always work, it helps the airlines better plan for the customers they are going to be servicing on a particular day.
With close to 1,000 flights to his credit, Morris believes each airport brings about different challenges and benefits for travelers with disabilities. “The biggest challenge in the entire travel industry is the lack of information,” said Morris, “if this information was provided, my website would no longer exist.” He added that there needs to be a balance between the challenges and the benefits that are now becoming more accessible. “I respect the challenges that air carriers face, as there is great variability in the number of passengers that need assistance daily, and that is hard to plan for and staff. It’s a hard problem to solve. But there’s a lot more data now on usage that can be utilized to plan better with.”
Each PANYNJ airport has its own webpage of accessibility services that include information on wheelchairs, oxygen requirements; drinking fountains; restroom accommodations; pet relief areas; hearing impaired accommodations; Planemates, or ‘mobile lounges’ used to transport passengers between arriving/departing aircraft and the gate area; Autolink Service (for connections to other flights); transportation to and from the airport, and car rental options.