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)
Enplaning, Deplaning, and Connecting Assistance
The original Part 382, issued in 1990, required U.S. carriers to provide enplaning and deplaning assistance, and it assigned to the arriving carrier the responsibility for providing assistance in making connections and moving between gates. The Foreign Carriers NPRM built on this existing requirement, proposing to require carrier assistance between the terminal entrance and gate, as well with accessing ticket and baggage locations, rest rooms, and food service concessions. The Foreign Carriers NPRM asked whether carriers should be permitted to require advance notice for these accommodations, and it proposed that enplaning, deplaning, and connecting assistance be provided “promptly.”
The Foreign Carriers NPRM proposed requiring carriers, in the course of providing this assistance, to help passengers with disabilities with carry-on and gate-checked luggage. It also proposed requiring carriers to make a general announcement in the gate area offering preboarding to passengers with disabilities.
Some carriers said that while they would voluntarily provide assistance to passengers with disabilities in moving through the terminal when practical and feasible, they opposed a regulatory requirement to provide this assistance. The Department does not believe that, under the ACAA, it is appropriate to tell passengers that they must learn to rely on the kindness of strangers. One of the purposes of Part 382 always has been, and remains, to create legally enforceable expectations upon which passengers with disabilities can consistently depend. Reliance on purely voluntary action by carriers does not achieve this objective.
One of the issues discussed most often in comments concerned the proposed requirement that enplaning, deplaning, and connecting assistance be provided promptly. Many commenters, particularly people with disabilities and organizations representing them, thought that the rule should specify maximum times for assistance – 5, 10, or 15 minutes – rather than having a more general requirement for promptness. Some disability community comments also said that the rule should prohibit carriers from waiting until everyone else had left the plane before providing deplaning assistance to passengers with disabilities (e.g., to deplane a person needing assistance at the same time as persons in adjacent rows leave), or at least that the rule should require carriers to assist passengers with disabilities in deplaning no later than the time the aircraft aisle is free of other passengers. Carriers, on the other hand, opposed such specificity, saying that it was impractical and potentially costly. Some carriers wanted a less specific term than “promptly,” preferring a concept like “as soon as reasonably possible under the circumstances.”
The Department has decided to adopt the “promptly” language as proposed. The Department is concerned that, given the wide variety of situations in different airports and flights, adopting a specific time limit as some commenters advocated would be unrealistic. On the other hand, having no standard would have the effect of reducing the requirement, as a practical matter, to “whenever the carrier gets around to it.” We understand “promptly” to mean, in the case of deplaning, that personnel and boarding chairs should be available to deplane the passenger no later than as soon as other passengers have left the aircraft. We believe that halting the boarding process for everyone behind, for example, Row 15, until a wheelchair user in Row 15 was transferred to a boarding chair and assisted off the aircraft, could unduly inconvenience a considerably greater number of persons. The requirement for prompt service imposes a reasonable performance requirement on carriers without creating unnecessarily rigid timing requirements which, in some situations, carriers operating in the best of faith might be unable to meet.
Many carriers suggested that they be allowed to require advance notice (e.g., of 24 or 48 hours) from passengers wanting enplaning, deplaning, and connecting assistance. This would make the logistics of providing the service easier for carriers to deal with, they said, and would ensure better service for passengers. We agree that it is highly advisable for passengers who want assistance to tell the airline about their needs in advance, and we urge passengers to communicate with carriers as soon as possible to set up assistance. We also noted comments from some carriers that, at some airports, particular locations have been established at which passengers arriving without prior notice can obtain assistance more easily and quickly than might otherwise be the case. This appears to be a good idea that carriers might consider using more widely. Nevertheless, being able to receive assistance in moving through the airport is so fundamental to access to the air travel system that the Department does not believe that allowing carriers to require – as distinct from recommending – advance notice would be consistent with the nondiscrimination objectives of the ACAA. Passengers with disabilities, like other passengers, sometimes must travel on short notice for business or personal reasons, and it would not be consistent with the ACAA to limit their access to needed assistance in moving through the terminal.
Carrier comments also mentioned, in this context, the relationship between carriers and many foreign airports, where airports often have the major responsibility for providing assistance in the terminal. As noted elsewhere in the preamble, carriers can rely on airports’ efforts with respect to assistance in the terminal, supplementing the assistance that airports provide as necessary to meet fully the requirements of Part 382. If carriers are precluded by law from supplementing the airport-provided assistance, carriers can request a conflict of laws waiver.
The Foreign Carriers NPRM, like the existing rule, assigns responsibility for connecting assistance to the carrier on which the passenger arrives. One foreign carrier mentioned that, per agreements with other carriers in at least some airports, its arriving passengers would be assisted to a connecting carrier’s gate by personnel of the connecting carrier. As noted elsewhere, the Department does not object to contractual agreements between carriers that would delegate the connecting assistance function to the connecting carrier. However, under the rule, the arriving carrier would retain responsibility for ensuring that the function was properly carried out.
Many carriers objected to having to allow passengers they are assisting to stop at a restroom or food service location, saying that this would delay service and increase personnel costs. Passenger comments, to the contrary, suggested that it was unfair for assistance personnel to insist on wheeling a passenger who needed to go to the bathroom or who was hungry past a conveniently located restroom or food concession, at which ambulatory passengers could stop at their discretion. Their comments pointed out that eating and relieving oneself are basic life activities that people must do from time to time. This issue has become increasingly significant in recent years due to the need for early arrival at the airport for security screening and cutbacks in airline meal service.
The final rule is structured to accommodate both sets of concerns. If an airline or contractor employee is assisting a passenger from, for example, the ticket counter to the gate, and they come to a restroom on the route they are taking, the employee is required to allow the passenger a brief stop, if the passenger self-identifies as a person with a disability needing this service. The employee is not required to detour to a different route, provide personal care attendant services to the passenger, or incur an unreasonable delay. A delay which would result in the passenger not getting to a connecting flight would obviously be unreasonable.
The Foreign Carriers NPRM proposed that persons with disabilities who need assistance in boarding be provided an opportunity to preboard. It also proposed requiring a general preboarding announcement to this effect in the gate area. Disability community comments generally supported the proposed requirements. Carrier comments did not object to the proposed requirement to provide an opportunity for persons with disabilities to preboard, though some carriers did object to making the general announcement of the opportunity in the gate area, mostly out of concern that too many ineligible people would try to preboard, thereby slowing the boarding process. The Department believes that preboarding is an important way in which carriers can facilitate transportation by passengers with disabilities. Indeed, some portions of Part 382 (e.g., with respect to on-board stowage of accessibility equipment) are premised on the availability of preboarding. The final rule will include this requirement. However, we will not make final the proposed provision requiring a general announcement of this opportunity in the boarding area. Some carriers make such an announcement as a matter of policy. Even where this is not the case, carrier personnel are generally responsive to requests from passengers with disabilities to preboard and often scan the boarding area to determine if there are passengers for whom preboarding would be appropriate. Passengers who want to ensure that they can preboard should ask gate personnel for the opportunity. It is reasonable to expect passengers to take this step.
The Foreign Carriers NPRM proposed that carriers, in the course of providing assistance to passengers with a disability in moving through the terminal, would assist them in transporting carry-on and gate-checked baggage. A number of carrier comments opposed this proposal, saying that it would impose staffing and cost burdens on them. If a passenger wanted to have someone carry his or her bags, at least one comment suggested, the passenger should hire porter service. Other commenters said that such service should be limited to wheelchair users or persons with severe hearing or vision impairments.
The Department notes that, in many cases, passengers with disabilities do not need extensive extra assistance in dealing with carry-on items. It is commonplace for wheelchair users to carry their briefcases or purses on their laps when being assisted through the terminal, for example. Proper-size carry-on and gate-checked items are, by definition, limited in size, and they are not the kind of items that passengers in general need to use a skycap and a cart to move through the airport. It would not be appropriate, in the context of a nondiscrimination rule, to effectively require passengers with disabilities to hire such service. We agree with commenters, however, that passengers who can carry their own items should do so, and we have added language saying that this service need be provided only to those passengers who cannot do so because of their disability. Carrier or contractor personnel can request credible verbal assurances from a passenger that he or she cannot transport the item in question or, in the absence of such credible assurances, require documentation as a condition of providing the service.