Persistent Parent Wins Access for Wheeler Child

Sometimes it’s rough to travel with kids. Throw a disability into the picture and the situation is greatly magnified. Joseph Ottenbreit certainly knows that. His daughter, Avery, has cerebral palsy, and she lacks the trunk support necessary to sit upright in an airplane seat. And at 73 pounds Avery well exceeds the weight limit for using the only device that made air travel a reality for her — the FAA-approved CARES child harness.

So Avery was effectively grounded.

Avery isn’t exactly a stranger to airline regulations and disability issues. Last year she was denied boarding on a return flight to Regina on Canada’s WestJet. The reason for that denial also had to do with trunk support. The flight attendants felt that Avery’s butterfly harness would interfere with safety procedures. So she was asked to deplane.

Avery just hasn’t had good luck with the airlines.

So what’s a parent to do? Well, if you’re Mr. Ottenbreit and you want your 15-year old child to be able to travel, you petition the FAA for an exemption.

And late last month, his exemption was granted.

So now Avery can fly.

But there are a few rules.

Avery can use the CARES harness, but she cannot travel unaccompanied, nor can she occupy any seat with a passenger seated directly behind her. So for all practical purposes, that pretty much means sitting in the last row. But hey, that’s better than being stuck at home.

Avery’s parents must carry a copy of the document granting the exemption with them when they travel with her, and the exemption is good until March 31, 2011. After that Mr. Ottenbreit will have to apply for another exemption.

So what does that mean for other parents facing the same problem? Is this a sign of the FAA changing their regulations? In a word no. Anyone is free to apply for an exemption, but parents should be cautioned that it’s a lengthy process, and all exemption applications must be submitted at least 120 days in advance. The FAA also takes the stand that this is not a precedent, as exemptions for disabled travelers have been granted before. Still parents are free to apply, but they must follow the same procedure as everyone else.

In short, it’s not a panacea; but if you have a special trip you want to take with your child, you have lots of lead time, and you don’t mind a little red tape, it may work for you.

Like I said, now Avery can fly.