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Flying while disabled

How airlines fail passengers
three decades after the Air Carrier Access Act
and how accessibility can be improved

Flying while disabled

How airlines continue to fail passengers three decades after the Air Carrier Access Act and how accessibility can be improved

Congress created the Air Carrier Access Act in 1986 to ban discrimination in air travel for people with disabilities, but many travelers still report challenges. Meanwhile, people with disabilities are traveling more than previous generations and more Americans are living long enough to develop conditions that require accommodations. 

In September 2019, the U.S. Transportation Secretary announced the creation of a federal advisory committee to “identify and assess barriers to accessible air travel,” as well as advise the government on recommended improvements. Called the Air Carrier Access Act Advisory Committee, it also must submit a report “on the needs of passengers with disabilities in air travel” by November 20, 2020.

In the meantime, GateHouse Media will document these travelers’ experiences, hold private and public leaders accountable to their promises, and highlight ideas for how to make air travel accessible for all. This is a dynamic reporting project that will be guided by the insights of travelers and airport workers. We encourage your suggestions and questions.


Travelers with power chairs report damage, injuries and lost opportunities

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Kenny Salvini (right) had his power chair broken twice in a year during flights with two different airlines. Here he is pictured strapped into a plane’s aisle chair in 2017 while damage to his own chair is assessed. Kenny Salvini | Submitted photo


Airlines damage thousands of mobility aids every year. ‘It’d be an uproar’ if it were pets.

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Isabelle Briar, of Omaha, Neb., still uses a chair that was damaged during a United Airlines flight three years ago because she cannot afford the fix herself and she said the airline refused to do more than tape it. Katrina Bishop | Freelance Photographer


Jennifer Brooks left her power chair at home when she visited her dying father

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Jennifer Brooks, a doctoral student at Syracuse University, said that when her father was dying she left her power chair at home and took an inadequate transport chair when she flew to Georgia to see him. She said she couldn’t afford the risk that her power chair would be damaged or that an airline would refuse to pay for repairs. Cherilyn Beckles | Freelance Photographer


Carolyn Agee was abandoned and immobile for 4-hour layover

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Carolyn Agee, an actor and author from the Pacific Northwest, alternates between a cane and a wheelchair depending on her health and the distance she needs to travel. |


Eric Howk flies to rock shows almost every week despite accessibility challenges

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Eric Howk of Portugal. The Man performs at the Coachella Music & Arts Festival at the Empire Polo Club on Sunday, April 15, 2018, in Indio, Calif. Amy Harris | Invision/AP


Kristen Parisi had never been apart from her chair until she flew to her best friend’s bridal shower

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Kristen Parisi, a writer and diversity consultant from New York, was without her wheelchair for the first time in her life this summer when JetBlue lost it after a flight to a friend’s bridal shower. Kristen Parisi | Courtesy Photo


Ben Mattlin wouldn’t risk flying, so he drove 2,000 miles instead

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Ben Mattlin at an Arizona hotel on road trip to Minneapolis to see his daughter graduate college. It would have been cheaper and quicker to fly, but he could not stomach the risk that his power chair might be damaged by airline crews. Ben Mattlin | Courtesy Photo


Cindy Otis has seen the world from her power chair. She still thinks airlines could do more to prevent damage

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Cindy Otis, a cyber-security expert from the East Coast, has traveled the world for work. Often, she says her power chair is damaged during flights, including in October when her joystick control was smashed. Here she is seen in Greece. Cindy Otis | Courtesy photo


Playing for a rugby team, Max Woodbury learned to live with flying’s regular challenges and occasional humiliations

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Max Woodbury, of Oregon, visited the Galapagos Islands on a family vacation last winter. Max Woodbury | Courtesy Photo


Report cards: A look at how often airlines report wheelchairs and scooters as damaged or lost

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Air traveling tips for chair users

Advice for safe, comfortable flying with a mobility aid.

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Flying while disabled: About the series

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Flying while disabled: Share your story with us

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