Air travel can feel like a nightmare.
But for people with disabilities, real travel nightmares happen every day.
This should concern us all. 1 in 4 Americans have a disability, and anyone can become disabled at any time.
We’ve made enormous progress in accessible transportation since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990. Bus travel is more accessible. Train travel is more accessible. Cruise ship travel is more accessible.
But commercial air travel is not. It’s exempted from the protections afforded travelers by the ADA, and despite the Air Carrier Access Act that was meant to promote accessibility, our air travel system has not done nearly enough to ensure Americans with disabilities have safe, efficient, and reliable travel options.
We can – and we must – do more.
Join Easterseals in helping make sure planes connect everyone to family and friends, to opportunity, and to possibilities by amplifying this effort on social media. Let people know that this is an issue that impacts everyone. Together, we can make America the world’s most accessible air travel market.
People with disabilities frequently find air travel stressful, humiliating, painful, and even dangerous.
When they arrive at an airport, people with disabilities often experience protracted waits for check-in assistance and wheelchairs.
Ticketing kiosks may be difficult to use for passengers who are hard of hearing or have low vision.
Travelers with disabilities may have trouble finding restrooms and service animal relief areas.
Travelers with mobility aids like wheelchairs and prosthetics are more likely to be subjected to extra security searches as some wheelchairs cannot pass through full-body scanners and prosthetics need to be patted down by TSA agents. These individualized screenings cause delays that could result in missed flights.
Security screenings are frequently mishandled by TSA agents who would benefit from more training on the needs of travers with disabilities.
At boarding, passengers who use wheelchairs are required to give up their chair and switch to an airline-issued one. Airlines are alone in requiring passengers to abandon their wheelchairs. You can stay in your wheelchair on a bus, train, or ship -- it should be no different for airplanes.
Airline-issued chairs are designed to fit in an airplane aisle, and they are often too small for most individuals, lack adequate padding and supports, and easily tip over. Airline personnel and contractors frequently lack training in how to safely transfer a person with disabilities from an airline-issued wheelchair to their seat. This process exposes people with disabilities to the risk of both humiliation and serious injury.
The lack of visual announcements at many airports is another barrier to boarding that people with disabilities face. If, as often is the case, an assigned gate changes unexpectedly, travelers who are Deaf or hard of hearing may miss this announcement and their flight.
Most domestic flights are not equipped with bathrooms accessible for people with mobility-related disabilities. This leads many flyers with mobility disabilities to put their health at risk by not eating or drinking for hours in advance of a flight to eliminate the need to use the bathroom. Others use catheters which can be uncomfortable and painful. Too many people with disabilities simply choose not to fly at all – an unacceptable outcome.
Airplanes frequently lack braille that enables people with low vision to find their seat and to access bathrooms.
Infotainment systems are inaccessible for many people with disabilities because they frequently do not have features like braille for passengers who are blind or low vision or captions for those with hearing-related disabilities. Passengers with physical disabilities are also frequently unable to access an infotainment system because they have difficulty using the system’s touchscreen or remote.
The lack of sufficient room for service animals and their owners to travel comfortably is another in-flight barrier that people with disabilities face.
Each day, an average of 31 wheelchairs are damaged when stored as cargo on airplanes by airline personnel or contractors. Last year, there were over 11,000 incidents of damaged wheelchairs. In addition to leaving people with disabilities without the mobility devices – sometimes for months – that allow them to function safely in the world, damaged wheelchairs can also result in health complications and lost wages. Simply getting another standard wheelchair in the meantime does not work for most wheelchair users, as their chairs are often heavily customized to meet their needs.
There’s been slow progress on making air travel more accessible. We need to move faster. At jet speed.
Delta Flight Products is pioneering a prototype for accessible seating areas where wheelchairs can be easily and safely secured in an airplane without losing any seats.
Recent federal regulations will require new larger single-aisle planes to have accessible bathrooms for people with disabilities beginning in 2035, but smaller aircraft will still have no truly accessible lavatories.
United Airlines is adding braille to its entire fleet by the end of 2026.
We’ve been talking about accessible air travel for more than 40 years. It’s well past time to complete the mission. Time to move at jet speed.
Fully accessible air travel would benefit us all, not just the 61 million Americans with disabilities.
Consumers with disabilities and their families activate more than $22 billion in buying power and have $490 billion in disposable income. More accessible leisure and business travel would mean more passengers for airlines, more planes sold by airplane manufacturers, as well as more jobs and opportunity for everyone. Not to mention the benefits to society of having a more inclusive world in which people with disabilities can fully participate.
What does the dream of fully accessible air travel look like?
Join the movement to make air travel fully accessible by the 40th Anniversary of the Air Carrier Access Act in 2026! Share this information with your friends and colleagues.
Change is never easy. But change is always possible. We’re a nation of doers and together we WILL build an equitable air travel system.