New Rules Issued By the U.S. Department of Transportation Pursuant to the Air Carrier Access Act Take Effect

Two new rules issued by the U.S. Department of Transportation are now in effect and promote accessibility of aviation-related services by individuals with disabilities.

The first rule went into effect on December 12, 2013 and relates to accessibility of airline websites and automated airport kiosks for passengers with disabilities.  Within two years carriers must make accessible to persons with disabilities those portions of their websites that provide core travel information and services, such as booking or changing a flight and associated amenities, accessing flight status, or checking in for a flight.  These webpages must meet the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 Level AA standard, an internationally-recognized website-accessibility standard.  Carriers must test their websites to ensure accessibility and usability.

If a passenger with a disability contacts a carrier by means other than its website, such as by telephone or in person at a ticket counter, and states that he or she is unable to use the website due to a disability, the carrier must: 1) provide web-based services to the passenger, such as fee waivers for purchasing a ticket online; and 2) disclose web-based discount fares if the passenger’s itinerary qualifies for such a fare.

Carriers also must publish on their website forms that passengers may submit to request services and accommodations relating to disabilities, such as wheelchair assistance.

Finally, within the next nine years at least 25% of all automated kiosks that a carrier individually or jointly owns, leases, or controls in each location at a U.S. airport must meet standards for technical accessibility with respect to their physical design and performance as set forth in 14 CFR 382.57(c).

The second rule, which went into effect on January 13, 2014, addresses transportation of wheelchairs and other assistive devices in aircraft cabins.  The existing regulations required new aircraft with at least 100 passenger seats to accommodate at least one passenger’s wheelchair in a priority stowage space within the aircraft cabin, and the regulations prohibited the use of “seat-strapping,” in which wheelchairs are strapped to a row of seats using a strap kit.

The new rule permits the practice of seat strapping as an alternative to stowing wheelchairs in a closet or similar space.  If a carrier uses the seat strapping method, the carrier must stow two wheelchairs in the cabin, but only if stowing a second wheelchair in the cabin would not displace additional passengers.

When publishing the final rule, the DOT expressed concern that permitting carriers to use the seat-strapping method could cast unwanted attention on passengers with disabilities and lead to stigmatization or unwanted attention for such individuals.  Accordingly, the revised regulations require that carriers permit a passenger who will be stowing a wheelchair in the cabin to pre-board, and carriers are prohibited from suggesting that a passenger decline to stow his or her wheelchair in the cabin for any non-safety reason.

The rule applies to aircraft of foreign carriers ordered after May 13, 2009 or delivered after May 13, 2010, and applies to aircraft of U.S. carriers with respect to aircraft ordered after April 5, 1990 or delivered after April 5, 1992.