The Department of Transportation (DOT) recently released a series of new rules that will take effect in 2014. These rules pertain to on-board wheelchair stowage, accessible websites and accessible airport kiosks.
At the top of the list is the often contested “wheelchair stowage rule”. As written, the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) requires aircraft with 100 or more seats to have a priority wheelchair stowage space in the closet for one folding manual wheelchair. The dimensions of that wheelchair cannot exceed 13 inches by 36 inches by 42 inches, without removing the wheels or otherwise disassembling it.
Although most carriers have complied with this part of the rule, a few carriers requested permission from the DOT to store manual wheelchairs by strapping them to the seats. Permission was conditionally granted to allow these carriers to use the seat-strapping method, as an alternative to stowing assistive devices in on-board closets. When the ACAA was later revised in 2008, the DOT decided not to allow this securement method on new aircraft (aircraft ordered after May 13, 2009 or delivered after May 13, 2011). The newest revision of the ACAA now allows seat-strapping in some cases, on both old and new aircraft.
Under the revision, airlines are still required to provide one on-board wheelchair stowage space in the closet; however if they opt to use the seat-strapping method, they are now required to accommodate two manual wheelchairs. Additionally, the seat-strapping kits must be FAA-approved. Furthermore, airline employees are not allowed to pressure passengers into agreeing to store their manual wheelchairs in cargo areas, by telling them that other passengers will have to be displaced in order to accommodate them, or that it’s just faster and easier to store assistive devices in the cargo area.
If the airline opts to use the on-board closet as the priority wheelchair stowage space, it must be clearly labeled as such. And as before, assistive devices take priority over crew and passenger baggage in this storage area. The wheelchair storage regulation also applies to new aircraft (ordered after May 13, 2009 or delivered after May 13, 2010) operated by foreign air carriers on flights to and from the US.
In the end, this revision gives airlines more flexibility with their storage options, and may provide an extra wheelchair storage space if they opt for the seat-strapping method. It should be noted that it’s up to the airline which method they will use, so in many cases the available wheelchair storage space will not be increased. So, the bottom line is, it’s still best to be first at the boarding gate to snag this priority space.
As for the kiosk and website revisions, covered airlines are required to make portions of their websites that contain information about accessible services and core travel information accessible within two years, and their entire website accessible within three years. This regulation also applies to foreign airlines with websites marketing air travel to US consumers, who offer flights to or from the US. Additionally, 25 percent of automated airport kiosks must be made accessible by 2024, and all newly purchased kiosks must be accessible to people with disabilities.
Ticket agents must also offer web-only fares to customers who are unable to access their website because of a disability, even if their website meets WCAG guidelines. This portion of the rule takes effect takes effect 180 days after the rule’s effective date (July 2014). The other portions of this new rule will take effect two months after the publication in the Federal Register. (Jan. 2014).
So all in all, it looks like air travel will be more accessible in 2014! And that’s a very good thing.