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Concerned about the small size of restrooms on airplanes, third-grader Rasha Kawar from Coppell, TX has written Pres. Bush and mounted a petition drive to get airlines to make bigger restrooms. MORE.



drawing of airplane
We want to be treated with dignity and respect -- not as a burden that the airlines carry with resentment. Not left sitting on an empty airplane for 30 minutes. Not having to go without water for hours before flying from fear that there will be no accessible restroom -- or no time to use one.

Time for airlines to stop abusing our civil rights

By Frederick A. Shotz

Feb. 19, 2004 -- I, along with a dozen other air travelers with disabilities, have just filed a lawsuit that we believe will bring to an end the purposeful discrimination we face from by U.S.-based airlines. We've sued American Airlines, United Airlines, Delta Airlines, Northwest Airlines, Continental Airlines, US Airways, American West Airlines, Alaska Air, Mesa Airlines and Trans States Airlines.

"Purposeful discrimination": Yes, that's a strong accusation I'm making -- that the discrimination against people with disabilities by U.S.-based airlines is purposeful and intentional. It is impossible to see it any other way.

The Air Carrier Access Act, unlike the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act, and the Fair Housing Act, does not allow private citizens to file lawsuits against airlines that violate our rights. All we can do is complain to the the Department of Transportation.

So how were we able to sue the airlines?

After 9/11, Congress gave the airlines billions of dollars of taxpayer money. Once they'd received those billions of dollars for their operations, those airlines became "federally funded programs" -- subject to the nondiscrimination requirements of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. That law, and its Section 504 in particular, allows people with disabilities who face discrimination in federally funded programs to file lawsuits.

When it was passed in 1986 the Air Carrier Access Act only applied to U.S. based airlines (called "American flag" airlines for legal purposes).Congress, in 1999, extended the scope of the Air Carrier Access Act to cover foreign flag airlines. With limited funding and limited staff, though, the U.S. Department of Transportation has been unable since then to write the rules to implement that act of Congress -- so our civil rights are still only protected on U.S. based airlines.

Our suit charges that these 10 airlines have violated the civil rights requirements of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act -- by not providing people with disabilities with equal access to their goods, programs, and services.


For people with disabilities who use wheelchairs, flying is filled with horror stories of wheelchairs being thrown in baggage holds and coming back badly damaged and power wheelchairs being unnecessarily disassembled and airline staff not able to put them back together

There are stories of paralyzed travelers being lifted over supposedly removable armrests, and sometimes injured; of disabled people forced to slide across seats and crammed into window seats so that other passengers will not have to climb over us.

We are frequently required to be the last people off of the aircraft after landing -- meaning we often miss connections.

The list goes on and on. For people with disabilities who travel with service animals, and people who have fused or immobilized leg joints, the abuse has been even worse.

The Air Carrier Access Act requires that airlines provide bulkhead seating to people flying with service animals. The only legal requirement is that we notify the airline of our need for a bulkhead seat no less than 24 hours before flight time

Yet several of the airlines we're suing make reserving bulkhead seats impossible.

We are told on the phone that bulkhead seats can only be assigned at the gate one hour before flight time. Then, at the gate, we're told that all bulkhead seats are already reserved and that we should have requested bulkhead seats 24 hours in advance.

Business travelers who are frequent fliers like the extra legroom in bulkhead seats. The airlines want to give those seats to those passengers -- not to us. Reserving a bulkhead seat, if it can be done, often takes hours on the telephone, multiple calls to different airline departments, and threats of filing complaints. The fact that the law specifically states, "at any time up to 24 hours before the scheduled departure of the flight, the carrier shall assign a seat meeting the requirements of this section to an individual who requests it." (emphasis added) is simply ignored.

People with disabilities continue to encounter frequent, significant violations of their civil rights.... When they complain, they encounter an enforcement effort that is both inconsistent and limited in scope..... ACAA implementation and enforcement efforts over the past 12 years have been so lacking in several essential areas as to constitute nonenforcement.
-- From Unequal Protection Under Law: An Independent Assessment of Federal Enforcement of the Air Carrier Access Act, National Council on Disability, 1999

The Act also requires that either bulkhead seating or other seating where extra legroom is provided be available or those with fused or immobilized leg joints. But these travelers face the same obstacles the rest of us disabled travelers face trying to reserve a bulkhead seat. The airlines simply refuse to cooperate.

I can no longer count how many times I have been told that all bulkhead seats have already been reserved by people who qualify for those seats under the ACAA -- yet each and every time I have been told that, I have found, when boarding the aircraft, that no person sitting in a bulkhead seat is disabled, no person in a bulkhead seat is flying with a service animal, no person in a bulkhead seat has fused or immobilized leg joints. The airlines simply lie, knowing that even if they are caught there are no consequences.

The Act also requires that half of all aisle seats have armrests that can be moved out of the way so that people with mobility impairment-based disabilities can get into a seat. No airline except Northwest has put fold-up or movable armrests on aisle seats in the business class cabins or in the first-class cabins. Northwest's website says they have movable armrests in first class cabins on "select" aircraft. But my attempts to find out from Northwest how many of their airplanes are equipped with these armrests in first class were unsuccessful. I asked the question, but never got an answer.

So if you are disabled and need to transfer from an aisle wheelchair to your seat, you cannot sit in business class or first class, even if you have the money or the frequent flier miles to purchase a business or first class ticket. I guess the airlines don't want their higher-paying passengers to have to be exposed to us.

And though the ACAA mandates bulkhead seating for some passengers with disabilities, none of the airlines we're suing have installed fold-up armrests on any bulkhead seats. It appears they just don't want us there. Even Northwest Airlines, which has some movable armrests in first class on a small number of their aircraft, have no movable armrests on any of their bulkhead seats.

Whether out of ignorance or to save a few dollars, several of the airlines we're suing put all of the fold-up armrests on the same side of the aisle. If your strong side is your right side, you might find that the only seats with fold-up armrests are on your left. Good luck getting from the airline's aisle chair into your seat!

Instead of working to resolve these problems, the airlines have worked diligently to make flying virtually impossible for any person with a disability who cannot be squeezed into any seat where the airline wants to put us.

New aircraft designs manage to create bulkhead seating we're not allowed to use: To squeeze in a few more seats, the airlines have instructed manufacturers to combine the bulkhead rows in coach with the exit rows. The FAA does not allow people with disabilities to sit in exit rows. The FAA does not allow service animals to occupy floor space in exit rows.

The airlines we're suing have replaced aircraft that have bulkhead rows where we can sit with aircraft that have no bulkhead rows in which we can be seated. This systematic decrease in accessibility has been done by all of the major U.S. Flag airlines in defiance of the requirements of the ACAA. Of course with the bulkhead rows being exit rows, frequent fliers no longer have to compete with people with disabilities for the seats.

Last year I was rolled onto a Delta airplane in their aisle chair only to discover that the bulkhead row to which I was assigned was an exit row. The chief cabin attendant decided that I would be placed, with my fused leg joints, my inflexible leg braces, and my large wheelchair-pulling service dog, in a seat with no extra legroom. I refused to allow them to move me from the door of the aircraft and I gave the airline the choice of giving me a seat where I actually could sit, or to arrest me for obstructing the operation of the aircraft. With the airline Complaint Resolution Official, the airline Terminal Manager, someone from airline operations, the whole cabin crew and two police officers all crowded in the small aircraft entrance area, the Captain finally took charge and ordered that I be seated in the first class bulkhead row. That flight was 45 minutes late pulling back from the gate, which was the length of time that I sat there risking arrest rather than give up my civil rights.

Some new aircraft have interior designs that do provide bulkhead seats that are not exit rows. But these bulkhead seats provide no extra leg room. And there are no seats in coach that provide any extra leg room. They just ignore the ACAA requirement for providing extra legroom to passengers with disabilities with fused or immobilized leg joints.

Of course every airplane with no bulkhead row in coach, or with the bulkhead row being the exit row, does have a bulkhead row that is not an exit row in the first-class cabin. The ACAA requires bulkhead seating for these identified groups of people with disabilities -- but the law also says that airlines are not required to provide seating in a class of service other than the one the passenger has purchased. While the airlines uniformly ignore the requirement that they provide bulkhead seating, they always refuse to put the passenger with a disability in a first class or business class seat, quickly puling out the ACAA regulations to show that they are not required to put us in a different class.

The Department of Transportation allows the airlines to ignore the requirement for bulkhead seats and then defends the airlines' right to not put us in a business class or first class seat, even though those are the only seats on the aircraft with extra legroom.

Lack of bulkhead seat availability isn't the only thing the airlines are doing to make it difficult or impossible for people with disabilities to fly.

One airline would provide assistance to a connecting flight gate for a passenger who is blind only if the passenger was willing to pay for the assistance.

Most airlines still do not provide visual boarding announcements or gate change announcements -- both crucial for people who are deaf or hard of hearing -- only Delta Airlines is currently installing video displays at gates to provide this information visually.

Though the ACAA requires people with folding wheelchairs have priority use of the on-board closet to store them, the closet is in fact often occupied by the luggage of the captain and the flight crew -- and they refuse to move their luggage, in defiance of the law.

One of us who is suing was not allowed to get off the plane until everyone else was off -- and then did not have time to use an airport restroom before having to board her connecting flight. Of course, neither the aircraft on which she was flying had an accessible restroom. One our our plaintiffs who has cerebral palsy was required to wait for 20 minutes before she was given assistance to the restroom on the aircraft. The flight attendants refused to disrupt their beverage service to provide her any assistance, even though she needed to use the restroom.

Though the ACAA requires that a "Complaint Resolution Official" -- a CRO -- be available to passengers having difficulty with access, there's rarely one available. I was given the choice by American Airlines of either missing my flight in order to speak with their complaint resolution official or of skipping the filing my complaint. We had only 20 minutes till departure, but that did not matter to them; they refused to bring the official on board to speak with me.

I will never forget waiting in an airport until almost midnight while the CRO attempted to find a copy of the ACAA regulations (something that they're supposed to have available on request) so that I could show him that he was required to write up my complaint. After an almost 2-hour search this American Airlines CRO then decided that it was "too late" for him to bother writing down my complaint. He told me I would have to send a letter to the airline.

The airlines do not want to bother with us. The airlines do not want us occupying their bulkhead seats. The airlines do not want us in business class or in first class. The airlines do not want our wheelchairs in their closets. The airlines do not want to hear our complaints.


We simply want the airlines to stop violating our civil rights and to provide to us what the law requires -- equal access to commercial air travel.

We want a reservation system that allows us to reserve seats that are accessible -- with the same ease that the general public can make reservations. We want to be able to make reservations and reserve seats on the airlines websites just like anyone else can. We want accessible seats in all classes of service. We want our mobility equipment to be treated with care and not tossed around like baggage.

We want seats that provide the room necessary for legs that do not bend; seats that provide room for our service animals We want the airlines to be required to seat us in business class or first class when their aircraft do not provide the seats in coach required by law.

We want effective communication for passengers who are deaf or hard of hearing. We want airlines to assist passengers who are blind, without extorting extra payment from them.

We want to be treated with dignity and respect -- not as a burden that the airlines carry with resentment. No passenger with a disability should ever again be left sitting on an empty airplane for 30 minutes. No passenger should ever again be required to take off braces and have them put in the baggage hold. No passenger should ever again have a wheelchair returned in pieces. No passenger should ever again be denied pre-boarding and then be told that their wheelchair must go in baggage, because using the closet requires pre-boarding. No passenger should believe that she must go without water for hours before flying from fear that there will be no accessible restroom -- or no time to use one.

If you are a person with a disability and you would like to join this lawsuit so that your rights are not violated in the future, so that you too can be heard, so that you can travel without being forced to suffer or be humiliated, please write to me at fredshotz@adapolice.org.

Posted Feb. 19, 2004.

ADA consultant Frederick A Shotz is president of the Association of Disability Advocates in Ft Lauderdale, FL.

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