U.S. Department of Transportation Considering New Rules under the Air Carrier Access Act

In accordance with the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) promulgates regulations aimed at promoting disabled passengers’ access to air travel and related services.  These regulations have been issued and modified intermittently over the last 25 years. The DOT recently announced that it is considering promulgating another set of rules in accordance with its authority under the ACAA.1

First, the DOT is considering issuing rules aimed at enhancing access by passengers with disabilities to services on board aircraft. Specifically, it is contemplating whether to ensure that passengers with disabilities have access to the same in-flight entertainment available to all passengers.  It also is considering whether carriers should be required to provide disability-accessible lavatories on certain new single-aisle aircraft, and whether carriers should be required to supply, for a fee, in-flight medical oxygen to passengers who require it during air transportation.

The DOT also is exploring issues relating to service animals.  As an initial matter, the DOT is contemplating clarifying or expanding the definition of the term service animal.  In response to concerns raised by airlines and disability organizations that passengers are increasingly submitting false claims that their pets are service animals, the DOT is considering establishing safeguards to reduce the possibility of false claims.

Additionally, the DOT is considering modifying a carrier’s obligations to provide seating accommodations to passengers with certain disabilities.  Currently, air carriers are required to provide seating accommodations to passengers within the same class of service.  In response to concerns that seats with extra legroom are available only in the “premium economy” section of aircraft, the DOT is considering whether “premium economy” should be deemed the same or a different class of service as “standard economy” for purposes of determining a carrier’s obligation to provide seats with extra legroom within the same class of service.

Finally, the DOT is exploring whether to require airlines to annually report the number of requests for disability assistance received and the time period within which wheelchair assistance is provided to passengers with disabilities.

The DOT has not yet issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking but, rather, has proposed that representatives of interested parties – such as disability advocacy groups, air carriers, and manufacturers – work together with the DOT to form an advisory committee to negotiate and reach a consensus on these issues.  The DOT likely will decide in early 2016 whether such a committee will be formed.

1 Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Disability in Air Travel; Consideration of Negotiated Rulemaking Process, 80 Fed. Reg. 75,953 (Dec. 7, 2015).