Accessibility Today

Almost fifteen years after the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was enacted, Airport facilities are still continually challenged with installing the right accommodations.

"There are nearly 50 million Americans over 15 years old with one form of disability or another" says Martin Orlick, a partner with San Francisco-based law firm of Jeffer, Mangels, Butler and Marmaro. "According to Fortune Magazine, disabled travelers in 1995 spent $82 billion on travel. Worldwide, the number of disabled travelers is exponentially higher," adds Orlick. "To this number, one must recognize most disabled travelers are accompanied by travel companions. [And] increasing numbers of disabled persons are business travelers."

The Law States...

With the passage of the Air Carrier Access Act of 1986 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, air transportation providers have made great strides to increase accessible services for people with disabilities.

In general, the ADA prohibits discrimination in public transportation by both publicly and privately funded entities. Part I of the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) covers Transportation, including airports; however, there are lines drawn with regard to which part of the ADA covers which service at or from an airport. Title II covers publicly funded entities and Title III covers privately funded entities.

However, air travel is excluded from ADA regulations as it is covered by the Air Carrier Access Act of 1986. The regulations of the Air Carrier Access Act affect US air carriers as well as facilities owned, leased or operated by them. Air carriers are required to establish a formal procedure to resolve complaints with regard to disability access.

Related services, such as ground transportation operated by public airports are subject to the same requirements as other public transit agencies. Public airport facilities are covered by Title II of ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Private airports are covered by Title III, and in some cases, by Section 504. Public accommodations within airports, such as restaurants and newsstands, are covered by Title III of the ADA.

Publicly funded transportation agencies that are recipients of funds from the Federal Department of Transportation must comply with all ADA regulations including those of the Department of Transportation, those of the Department of Justice implementing Title II of the ADA and those of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission implementing Title I of the ADA.

Areas of Concern

"The nation's airports, more so than many public accommodations, have taken significant steps to make airport public facilities accessible to disabled travelers," explains Orlick. "Most public facility access barriers have been removed in the parking lots, paths of travel to and through our airports, ticket and service counters, baggage handling, rest rooms, restaurants and airport ground services."

Orlick also points out, "the major areas of concern for the disabled traveler (particularly wheelchair travelers) are traveling from the curb to the gate, delays, missing flights and access barriers from ‘jetway to jetway."

"Transferring from a personal wheelchair to a smaller airport service chair, boarding the flight, being seated and accommodated in flight, debarking and catching connecting flights are areas of concern to airport managers, personnel and disabled passengers."

Another concern in today's ground environment is that of security screening. According to statistics published by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics in 2002, there are numerous reported problems by those with a disability using air transportation and the service of airports. Security restrictions were the biggest problems faced by persons with disabilities at airports, accounting for over a third of those reported.

The issue of most concern to an airport ground support manager regarding accommodating disabled passengers is adequate training of ground support staff. According to Orlick, this means understanding legal and safety issues in working with disabled travelers and service animals such as sight, seizure and hearing alert dogs.

In fact, according to statistics published by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics in 2002, disabled persons listed staff that was insensitive to their needs as the third most significant problem for those traveling with a disability.

Proactive Against Litigation

Airport partners are taking a very proactive role in disability access as a result of complaints and lawsuits filed against them. "For airport authority managers and leaders, the issues of most concern are adequate facilities and effective training of personnel to assist the disabled traveler without impacting other passengers and without creating security risks," explains Orlick. "Our litigation experience shows that many ADA suits are brought because disabled customers are mad at being delayed, ignored, not promptly serviced or otherwise mistreated."

According to Orlick, special attention should be given to policies and procedures to make disabled travelers' experience as convenient as possible, including navigating long terminal connection corridors, fly-way corridors and slopes. Also, when disabled passengers carry luggage on their laps, it affects their mobility, making prompt personal assistance all the more important. Finally, baggage personnel training should focus on the proper care and handling of stowed wheelchairs to avoid damage.

Orlick explains that it's the airport manager's responsibility to ensure tenants fully comply to avoid being sued. "The ADA applies equally to tenants and those who lease to them," he says. " Liability is joint and several, which means the disabled plaintiff has standing, or the legal right, to sue both the tenant and the airport (which generally has much deeper pockets). Be sure your leases and concession agreements require tenants and concessionaires to strictly comply with accessibility laws and enforce your leases religiously."

Avis, the country's second largest car rental company has responded to complaints and lawsuits with a change in the way it does business. Starting in 1994, it provided rental cars with hand controls for persons with disabilities - requiring as little as eight hours notice in most major airport locations - after disabled persons were unable to rent a car from its facility.

Avis also agreed to urge all existing licensees to adopt the same policy, require all new franchisees and those renewing their contracts to adopt the policy, train its staff at its corporate-owned rental locations and allow persons who are unemployed due to a disability and who do not use credit cards, to substitute verifiable disability-related income in lieu of a verifiable employment history.

Airlines also seem to be taking these problems to heart and doing something about it before further action is taken against them. In 2003, the Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, one of the world's busiest airports, introduced new public information and paging system to fully address the needs of passengers with disabilities.

The airport facility's compliance and sensitivity to ADA requirements is paramount. "Public facilities should be made accessible and properly maintained to accommodate disabled travelers," adds Orlick. "Following the law can make travel for the disabled as convenient an experience as possible. Lack of adequate training can result in delays, inconvenience, injuries, humiliation and expensive, complex litigation."

Call to Action

Airports have come a long way in accommodating persons with a disability. "As for 15-20 years ago, disability was not even on the radar" says Eric Lipp, executive director of open doors organization, a Chicago-based non-profit that teaches businesses how to make consumer goods and services accessible to people with disabilities.

"If I were a manager or leader of a major airport or hub, I would try working internally to find out what the issues might be," explains Lipp. "Ultimately the answers are going to be found within your own property. So I would start by asking the travelers themselves what they would like to see and what issues are most important. Prioritizing these objectives is also a part of the process. Using the resources that a leader has access to could really be effective in making changes."

"September 11 changed the way America flies," explains Orlick. "Over the past 20 years, and more particularly in the past 5 years, the disabled community has increasingly taken to the skies to take on the world in business and personal travel. Disabled travelers have varied needs and typically require greater personal attention to navigate through security, terminals and fly-ways to travel independently. The result has been changes in airlines security, operations and policies. Bus, train and airport accessibility equipment and policies were inconsistently applied. During the past 5 years, the trend for removing physical barriers in the public facilities at airports has greatly improved, as have training and policies to provide services and equipment to disabled travelers."