Federal airline regulators are taking steps to improve service for passengers who are disabled and for parents lugging child-safety seats onto planes.
The U.S. Department of Transportation earlier this month said it was looking at ways to, among other things, ensure that disabled fliers have better access to in-flight entertainment and to bathrooms on single-aisle airplanes.
Parents of babies and toddlers also will become privy to more information about the size of airline seats so they can ensure that their, say, Cosco Scenera fits property onto the chair on the plane. By Feb. 29, airlines must post on their websites the width of the narrowest and widest passenger seats in each class of service for every make, model and series of plane.
“We’re putting it up on United.com,” Charles Hobart, a spokesman for the Chicago-based airline, said of the seat dimensions. “We’ll have that information available for all customers” by the late February compliance deadline.
As for possible changes to services for the disabled, Hobart said it’s still too early in the process to comment. Public comments are due Jan. 6 on a review that the Transportation Department formally calls “nondiscrimination on the basis of disability in air travel.”
The department, in a Dec. 7 posting in the Federal Register about service for the disabled, noted “the industry trend toward greater use of single-aisle aircraft that are not equipped with accessible” bathrooms on midlength and longer flights.
“The disability community has expressed distress that single-aisle aircraft are increasingly used by airlines for longer flights but lack accessible lavatories,” the department said in the register.
Laurel Van Horn, programs director for Open Doors Organization, said single-aisle aircraft were once used for short-distance flights but now are used on such routes as New York to Paris and New York to Seattle.
“How many people want to go without using the restroom for that long?” asks Van Horn, whose Chicago-based group advocates for the disabled in travel and tourism. She notes that Airbus, for example, is already building A320s with SpaceFlex restrooms that convert to a larger space without any loss of seats.
Eric Lipp, Open Doors Organization executive director, is partially paralyzed and relies mostly on a scooter to get around. On flights, people with disabilities are supposed to be transferred to an “aisle chair” and pushed to the bathroom, but it’s still an ordeal on single-aisle flights, he said.
Lipp said he wishes it “would become a norm to put in an accessible restroom” for people with disabilities. “Take a few seats out and put it in.”
The Transportation Department said it was considering “a negotiated rulemaking” concerning bathrooms and other accommodations for the disabled.
In negotiated rulemaking, interested parties — which in this case could include disability advocacy groups, airlines and aircraft makers — are invited to work together and with the agency on an advisory committee to try to reach a consensus. If a consensus is reached, then the department issues proposed rules.
Specifically, the negotiated rulemaking, among other things, could explore how to:
- Improve accessibility of bathrooms on new single-aisle aircraft.
- Ensure that disabled passengers have access to the same in-flight entertainment as other fliers. “People who are deaf have not had access to captioning” on in-flight entertainment, said Van Horn of Open Doors.
- Develop a consistent definition for service animals. Airlines and groups representing the disabled have raised concerns to the Transportation Department about passengers “falsely claiming that their pets are service animals,” the department said in the Dec. 7 Federal Register.
The department has hired Richard Parker from the University of Connecticut’s law school to help determine whether such an advisory committee should be set up. The department could then decide to set up the advisory committee, or to initially proceed with rulemaking on its own.
Doug Alder, spokesman for Chicago-based Boeing, said the airplane maker is “glad to participate in the analysis and rulemaking by the federal Department of Transportation for accessible lavatories.”
“Boeing often sits on national committees to offer input on future regulations,” he said. “We stand ready to implement any airplane design changes, should those become necessary.”
The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, the union that represents 24,000 United flight attendants, also has an interest in the outcome.
“In terms of aircraft design, we have worked to promote configurations that provide realistic access to the lavatories for disabled passengers,” said President Sara Nelson. “We encourage oversight of the FAA during this process and advocate to the agency, airlines and aircraft manufacturers to ensure configurations recognize the challenges of a disabled passenger traveling.”
Meanwhile, additional disclosures about the size of airline seats are coming to the website of virtually every operator.
The Federal Aviation Administration, which is part of the Transpiration Department, encourages the use of aircraft-approved child safety seats on flights.
“However, in a small number of cases,” a caregiver who has bought a ticket for the child will find that an approved child-safety seat “may not fit in a particular airplane seat,” the FAA said in the Federal Register on Sept. 30.
Although, when that occurs, the airline is supposed to find another seat in the same class where the child-safety seat will fit, the new disclosure requirement will “give caregivers additional information on whether an FAA-approved” child-safety seat will fit on the plane on which they plan to travel.
The FAA said it believes the new rule will encourage the greater use of child-safety seats on airplanes.
When flying, a caregiver for a child under the age of 2 has two options: fly with the child in his or her lap at no charge, or buy a separate ticket for the child, entitling them to a seat with or without the use of a child-safety seat.
The flight attendants’ union has recommended that child-safety seats for children under 2 be required since a Sioux City, Iowa, crash 26 years ago. In that crash, a Chicago-bound jetliner suffered catastrophic engine failure and crash-landed, killing 111. Crew efforts saved 185 others.
“Publicizing seat measurements for each class of service for every airplane operated by the airline is a good first step,” Nelson said. “We support this, but we won’t rest until children are safely secured in required safety seats.”
Although the FAA prefers that flying parents use safety seats, it stops short of requiring them.
Its reasoning: If caregivers were forced to buy airline seats for young children, the additional cost would motivate many families to drive instead of fly.
Transportation regulators estimate that, over a 10-year period, if flying parents were forced to buy seats for babies, five infants’ lives would be saved aboard aircraft, and two major injuries and four minor injuries would be avoided.
But the number of babies’ lives saved on airplanes if parents were forced to buy seats would be offset by additional deaths on the highway for airline passengers who decide to drive rather than spring for an airline seat for baby.
“Even if infant fares were only 25 percent of full fare,” more parents would still opt for driving and therefore there’d be a net increase in deaths over the 10 years, the Transportation Department said. It would also expose the entire family to riskier auto travel, it said.
Source: Chicago Tribune