The rules about how handicapped travelers are treated aloft seem destined for more changes, with the possibility that all passengers on all airlines will have to be handled identically.
The two-tier Department of Transportation rule imposes different standards for subsidized and non-subsidized airlines. The subsidized airlines are governed by a specific set of rules on access for the handicapped, but the non-subsidized carriers just follow a general prohibition on discrimination against disabled passengers.
Most air travel by handicapped passengers, who number around 35 million in the United States, is on the major carriers who are not subsidized and who thus have more leeway in their treatment of such travelers.
Attempts by handicapped groups to make the rules apply to all airlines were recently shot down by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that upheld the two standards. This decision was based on the fact that the major airlines don't come under a federal civil rights statute prohibiting discrimination in federally subsidized programs.
In light of that ruling, the Department of Transportation is considering other methods of aligning the two standards.
Congress is also looking at the dual standards, with separate bills introduced. The Senate bill (S. 2703) would subject airlines to stricter federal rules on discrimination against disabled passengers, in effect offsetting the Supreme Court decision. A similar bill (H.R. 5154) was introduced in the House of Representatives that would require airlines, among its provisions, to give disabled passengers the same service as non-handicapped travelers. This bill would also permit passengers with disabilities to sue the airlines if airlines violated its provisions.
There is considerable difference of opinion as to whether the general guidelines for non-subsidized carriers really require such an overhauling or just a more even application of the existing rules by the airlines.
The general rule states that airlines shouldn't discriminate against any handicapped person because of that person's handicap. There are three situations where the airline can refuse service to a disabled passenger: when the handicapped person is unable or unwilling to comply with the reasonable requests of carrier personnel; when taking that person on the flight would violate safety requirements set by the FAA, and when that passenger doesn't satisfy advance notice requirements.
An airline, under FAA regulations, may require handicapped passengers to fly with attendants when necessary for the safety of other passengers or if the person needs extra personal care, including responding to the requests of flight personnel.
But interpretation of these rules, contend critics, varies from airline to airline and sometimes from city to city served by the same carrier. Not all airline employees are sufficiently trained, observers argue, to make determinations on the feasibility of boarding handicapped travelers.
One of the key issues confronting passengers and airlines is when a handicapped passenger needs special assistance. Many carriers have a policy that passengers requiring such assistance must travel with a companion.
"The Supreme Court ruling was a slap in the face," said Yvonne Nau, secretary/treasurer of the recently formed, Los Angeles-based Travel Industry & Disabled Exchange, a trade group. "The biggest thing that we object to is that the airlines, both under the existing and now reinforced rules, can ask for someone to accompany us," added Nau, who is also a travel agent.
As to the practical impact of the ruling, Nau said: "The airlines that have been good and innovative as far as accommodating disabled travelers will continue to do so, but this decision legitimizes discrimination for those carriers that want to refuse service."
Nau indicated that "about 75%" of the airlines cooperate with disabled passengers.
"While the airlines are getting better and better, people with disabilities still face considerable problems with some airlines," she said. "For example, you may be told when making a reservation that it's the airline's policy that passengers in wheelchairs be accompanied by a non-disabled person. And that's sight unseen. You'll be asked if you will need any assistance in boarding or going to the lavatory, but it doesn't seem to make any difference what your answer is if the airline has that policy.
"Even worse," Nau said, "are the situations where there is no problem in making the reservations but when airline personnel may advise you at the airport, possibly already at the gate, that you need a companion."