In the absence of a global standard governing accessibility for passengers with disabilities, new regulations threaten to further confuse matters

Passengers with reduced mobility (PRM) and other disabilities must have equal or equivalent access to the services available to the general public. It is equally clear that airlines will need to absorb the costs within their business models. 

What isn’t straightforward is the effect of increasing regulation. There are no global standards (see panel). Regulations in the European Union (EU) are different from those in North America. Other countries have no specific regulations at all. This can be confusing for the PRM as well as for airlines and airport operators. 

It doesn’t stop there. Over and above specific regulations dictating what service airlines and airports should provide to passengers with disabilities, individual countries may have anti-discrimination laws that could potentially be invoked by those dissatisfied with the service or treatment that they have received. 

In short, PRM regulation is a legal minefield. An increasing number of court cases are being launched by both individuals and disability action groups to test existing rules.

Interpretive Guidelines

Both the European Commission (EC) and the US Department of Transportation (DOT) are trying to clarify the interpretation of existing rules and implement new ones. 

With the 2012 Paralympic games being hosted in London at the end of August, the EC is producing “Interpretive Guidelines” relating to the existing PRM regulation (1107/2006). An initial draft of the Guidelines has met with a barrage of concerns, however. The EC met with representatives of the industry and member states in February 2012 and is currently working on a revised wording. 

“The whole industry has concerns about the wording of the Interpretive Guidelines,” says Federico Bonaudi, Manager of Facilitation, Parliamentary Affairs and Regional Airports with Airports Council International (ACI)-Europe. “However, these Guidelines are just the European Commission’s interpretation. They are not binding. It will just be their point of view at the time of publication.”

Others are equally perplexed by the draft Guidelines. “My general view is that the document is weak and imprecise and does little to address areas of ambiguity,” says Juergen Waechtler, Director of Operations at Hamburg Airport. “In particular, it seems to encourage individual interpretation by member states, airports, and airlines, which undermines the fundamental principle of harmonization. Regulation 1107 might need some clarification, but most issues are covered quite well. We would like to see all passengers being able to receive the same level of service throughout the EU, and 1107 has, to a large extent, achieved that.”

Jean Pierre Lefebvre, Coordinator for Handling of Special Care Passengers with Air France and Chairman of the Association of European Airlines TPC/PRM Experts Working Group, highlights a particular concern regarding widening the scope of Regulation 1107 to include mothers travelling with children.

“Regulation 1107 clearly states that it is intended to prevent disabled or reduced mobility passengers from being refused carriage or embarkation on an aircraft,” says Lefebvre. “It obliges carriers to accept and assist these passengers. I cannot believe that any airline in Europe has had the strange idea of refusing to carry, or board, mothers with children. It seems inappropriate to class these passengers alongside passengers with genuine reduced mobility or other specific special needs. This interpretation is too broad, because it is not taking the main purpose of Regulation 1107 into account.”

Lefebvre points out that the crux of Regulation 1107 is pre-notification. Airlines need to be told at least 48 hours ahead if a passenger has special needs. An airline is then bound to notify the relevant airports 36 hours in advance that a special needs passenger will be on a specific flight. 

“The IATA Special Service codes allow the airline to give automated notification from the Passenger Name Record,” says Lefebvre. “However, there is no way to pre-notify an airport that a family with children will be on a flight, because there is no IATA code for families with children.”

Airline websites and PRMs

It is not just about the physical process. Online services too are having to adapt. Many airlines have sections on their websites relating to passengers with special needs. Lefebvre believes that it is good practice to inform passengers about their rights and give them as much information as possible to help them to prepare for travel.

“At Air France we have tried to provide comprehensive information and to explain the level of service that passengers with special needs should expect,” Lefebvre says. 

“What we present on our website is our interpretation of both European and US laws and how these apply to the passenger. Even if there is no mandatory requirement to do so, we try to follow and explain all recommendations to the passenger,” he continues.

An airline’s website should also allow passengers with pecial needs to notify airlines of their specific disability. Making sure that the website itself is accessible to all is an important first step to allowing this to take place efficiently. A visually impaired person usually has devices that describe the website by audio description, for example. A majority of airline websites are now accessible to visually impaired people, using a special keyboard that can translate Braille into a common language.

Access to self-service kiosks

Online booking leads on to the question of self-service. The rapid growth in the number of self-service check-in kiosks at airports is pushing the US DOT to ensure those kiosks are fully accessible to passengers with special needs. 

“This is interesting from a legal perspective in the United States because, in some cases, these kiosks have been installed and are used by specific airlines, while in other cases the airport operator has installed common-use kiosks,” says Gary Doernhoefer, General Counsel for IATA. “From a legal aspect, airlines fall under the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) but as a government or city entity, airport operators might fall under a different statute.”

A pair of US lawsuits filed last year by an association of visually impaired people highlights the differences. One suit was filed against Las Vegas McCarran International Airport, specifically in relation to the fact that the kiosks installed in the terminal were not accessible to the visually impaired. These were common-use kiosks installed by the airport operator and the case is still pending. 

In another case, a Federal Court in California dismissed charges against United Airlines even though the kiosks involved had been installed by the airline. The court in that case determined that airlines’ obligations are defined only by the ACAA, and that state laws prohibiting discrimination against people with disabilities do not apply. Currently, the ACAA does not expressly require access to self-service kiosks (although it prohibits discrimination based on disability). Shortly after the United case decision, another Federal Court reached the same conclusion, dismissing similar claims brought against JetBlue.

“These decisions may have contributed to the DOT’s renewed effort to issue regulations regarding access to kiosks,” says Doernhoefer. “The DOT is in the midst of a rulemaking—part of which suggests that every kiosk should be accessible to all passengers, including those with a whole range of disabilities.” Passengers in wheelchairs, for example, would need kiosks that are at a lower height, while visually-impaired passengers would require the kiosk to have a different technology, or Braille keyboard to allow them to use it. 

“It is not clear that the technology for this is fully tried and tested yet,” says Doernhoefer. “More work is required to ensure that it is reliable and useable and the number of units needed have to be commercially produced. Manufacturers may even slow investment until the regulations are clear.”

Meeting standards

In a joint memorandum, IATA, Airlines for America, ACI-North America, the Regional Airline Association, and the Air Carrier Association of America have submitted comments highlighting the impracticality of some of the proposed new rules. The wording is viewed as being very restrictive (providing for only one method of compliance for kiosks and websites) and imposing very short deadlines, which will unnecessarily drive up costs. 

Doernhoefer worries that DOT’s proposal has far too many specifics. “I think it is very important that regulation should not specify a technology-based solution,” he says. “The DOT should regulate at a policy level and let the industry work out how best to meet the required standards.”

Doug Lavin, IATA Regional Vice President for North America, agrees. “Our members recognize the importance of making air travel accessible to all passengers, regardless of disability. Unfortunately, the technology is not yet there to meet the letter of the proposed DOT regulation on kiosks and websites. We hope that DOT gives the airlines the time needed to achieve our shared goals in this area.”

The IATA Common Use Working Group—which includes carriers, airports, and vendors—has met several times to discuss how to incorporate accessibility features into self-service kiosks. It has analyzed the DOT’s proposed new rules and provided extensive information on the research, redesign, and reprogramming that will need to go into a revamped kiosk. Assuming the DOT goes ahead with its proposal in some form, the IATA Group will be instrumental in providing input on industry standards.

Towards Global Standards
From a practical standpoint, it would be far more beneficial for all passengers with disabilities if a global set of standards could be implemented. “At the moment, it is a real patchwork,” says Gary Doernhoefer, General Counsel for IATA. “If the technological solutions to pending legislation differ, it will add to the confusion for passengers with disabilities.” 

Regulation in North America and Europe is different in several respects. One significant variation is that in the EU the responsibility is on the airport operator to take care of PRMs right up to seeing them into their seat on the aircraft. In the United States, airlines are responsible for the special needs passenger from the moment that the passenger arrives at the check-in area. 

The situation in Canada is a little different again. The Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) is tasked with ensuring the removal of undue obstacles for persons with disabilities in the Canadian transportation network. Some basic regulations were adopted in the mid-1990s, but usually the CTA decides any matters arising on a case-by-case basis.

The CTA has issued various Codes of Practice, which are not legal instruments. These codes require that where transportation-related dispensing machines and information kiosks are made available to the general public at least one should be made available to persons with disabilities. There is no indication which disability the kiosk must address, however. To further muddy the waters, the Canadian legislation does not actually define the term, “disability.”

In Latin America, there are currently no laws specifically relating to aviation and passenger with disabilities but both Ecuador and Brazil have recently enacted discrimination laws that could be used to force airline compliance