14 CFR Part 382 Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Disability in Air Travel (Air Carrier Access Act): Preamble and Section-by-Section Analysis (with amendments issued through July 2010)
Like the existing rule, the Foreign Carriers NPRM emphasized the role of CROs. These are individuals trained to be the carrier’s experts in ensuring that carrier personnel correctly implement ACAA requirements and that problems of passengers with disabilities are resolved in a way that is consistent with Part 382. The purpose of having a CRO is to resolve passengers’ problems as quickly as possible, without resort to formal DOT enforcement procedures and, we hope, in many cases, before a violation occurs.
Under the Foreign Carriers NPRM, there would have to be a CRO available to passengers with disabilities at every airport the U.S. carrier serves and at every airport where a foreign carrier operates a flight to or from the U.S,, whether in person or by phone. Carrier personnel would have to refer a passenger with a disability-related complaint or problem to a CRO. The Foreign Carriers NPRM also would tell carriers to provide the number of the DOT Disability Hotline to such passengers. CROs have the authority to direct other carrier personnel (except pilots-in-command with respect to safety matters) to take actions to resolve problems so as to comply with the ACAA. Carriers and CROs would have to respond to consumer complaints in a timely manner.
Disability community comments generally supported the proposed rule, though some comments suggested that CROs and carriers should have to respond faster to consumer complaints than the Foreign Carriers NPRM proposed. Some carriers, on the other hand, thought that the time frames in the Foreign Carriers NPRM were too short, especially if a lengthy investigation were needed in order to respond. Disability community commenters also strongly supported the proposal to direct carriers to refer passengers who raise disability-related issues to a CRO, since many individuals may not know about the availability of CROs otherwise.
A number of carriers said that they thought that having CROs available to passengers at every airport was not cost-effective and that existing customer service offices could meet the need. One foreign carrier thought that its personnel could not be successfully trained to carry out the CRO role. Some carriers thought that they should not have to refer passengers to the DOT Hotline, saying that this would undermine the purpose of having CROs resolve problems as close to the scene of the action as possible.
Some commenters objected to providing TTY service as a means of permitting hearing-impaired passengers to contact a CRO, saying that this was impractical in some places (e.g., an airport in a country where TTY service was unavailable). Some comments said the Foreign Carriers NPRM’s proposal to allow 18 months after the event for a passenger to file a complaint with DOT was too long.
The final rule retains the role and functions of the CRO. Our experience supports the proposition that the use of CROs is crucial to prompt and efficient solution of passengers’ problems. However, we are making a few clarifications and changes in response to comments. Carriers may use other accessible technologies in lieu of TTYs to permit hearing-impaired passengers to communicate with CROs. The proposed requirement for carriers to refer passengers to the DOT Hotline has been dropped. The time frame for a carrier to respond to an oral complaint to a CRO has been expanded to 30 days, making it consistent with the time frame for responding to written complaints. The final rule clarifies that with respect to CROs and complaint responses, carriers providing scheduled service, and carriers providing nonscheduled service using aircraft with 19 or more passenger seats, are covered. When the rule speaks of “immediate” responses by carriers, it means prompt and timely referral to a CRO when passengers raise a disability-related problem or complaint that cannot be quickly resolved by carrier personnel on the spot (e.g., a gate agent, a flight attendant). We have reduced from 18 months to six months the period after an event in which a passenger may file a complaint with DOT.
A few foreign carriers said that it was improper to permit non-U.S. citizens to have access to the U.S. DOT through the complaint process. In the commenters’ view, this implied improper extraterritorial jurisdiction under a law that was intended to create rights only for U.S. citizens. We do not agree. First, the ACAA protects “individuals with disabilities,” with no limitation on the nationality of those individuals. Second, the Department has a legitimate interest in ensuring that its legal requirements are implemented. It does not matter to the Department who brings a problem to its attention. Once we know about the problem, it is up to the Department, working with the carrier, to correct the problem, and civil penalties are one of the Department’s tools for helping to correct a problem.
An association representing U.S. carriers objected to a proposed exception to the 45-day limitation on accepting written complaints for complaints referred by the Department of Transportation. The commenter also suggested that carriers be allowed to limit the means through which a disability-related complaint is transmitted to them to the means used to accept non-disability-related complaints. In the Department’s view, if we think a complaint is important enough to refer to an air carrier, it is important enough for the carrier to respond. We also believe that, in attempting to enforce rights under a nondiscrimination statute, passengers should be able to send a complaint by any reasonable means available to them, without limitations placed by carriers on the transmission of other sorts of consumer complaints. These features of the proposed rule will be included in the final rule without change.