Disabled People and the Airline Experience—some insights

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United Airlines Earns Top Marks on Disability Equality Index

American Airlines Receives Top Score on the Disability Equality Index and Named Best Place to Work for Disability Inclusion

UA and AA awards for disabled inclusion in workforce

Experience with disabled colleagues like to improve service to disabled passengers

Excellent Research on Issue and new assistance equipment

United and American are among the 126 Fortune 1000 companies that received 100 percent on the 2018 Disability Equality Index. The DEI is a measure of disability inclusion established by American Association of People with Disabilities, the US Business Leadership Network and disability advocates. The Index measures key performance indicators across organizational culture, leadership, accessibility, employment, community engagement, support services and supplier diversity.

In its fourth year, the DEI has experienced nearly a 32% increase in year-over-year participation, signaling disability inclusion is on the rise across industries. 70% of businesses participating in the 2017 DEI chose to also participate in 2018, utilizing the tool as multi-year benchmarking roadmap.

United cited its e-commerce, digital accessibility, and its training programming that trains employees on how to effectively work with diverse colleagues. They pointed particularly to an option for employees to voluntarily disclose disabilities on an internal human resources portal. American explained that it is focused on continuous improvement in this area– supplier diversity to community support and involvement, and the revision of rules surrounding emotional support animal carriage.

Both companies mentioned in their acceptance statements their efforts to improve their services to disabled customers.  United’s web page, Customers with disabilities and American’s  It’s Cool to Fly American both provide information for these travelers in an effort to better plan for and fly on their planes and relying on the airlines’ customer service employees/cabin crew.

The US Department of Transportation, through its Aviation Consumer Protection  office, has websites with extremely informative advice:

Traveling with a Disability

·        Wheelchairs and Other Assistive Devices

·        Assistance Moving Throughout the Airport

·        Seating Accommodations

·        Service Animals (includes emotional support animals)

The New York Times published a lengthy article– For Disabled Travelers, Technology Helps Smooth the Way. But Not All of It.


Consider the experience of Michael May, who is blind and typically flies at least once a week. Mr. May, the executive director of Envision’s BVI Workforce Innovation Center, which provides employment training for the blind and visually impaired in Wichita, Kan., says he uses airline apps at home to secure his boarding pass, takes Uber to the airport and gets dropped off as close as possible to the Transportation Security Administration’s PreCheck. (He’s also enrolled in the Clear program to speed his way through airport security.)

But then he hits what he calls a void — he has to ask someone how to get to the security line. And in frenzied airports, he doesn’t always get a response.

“I’m looking forward to having indoor navigation to the point where I can at least get to PreCheck,” he said.

Mr. May has a cane and Jonnie, his golden retriever guide dog. He also draws on screen-reader software and smartphone apps. He uses the free app Be My Eyes, which relies on a network of 1.2 million volunteers to provide directions through the airport via live video. In addition, he uses Aira, a monthly subscription app that uses a smartphone camera or a pair of glasses outfitted with a camera to live-stream video to an agent, who then provides navigational instructions. Ten airports, including ones in Seattle, Boston, Houston, Memphis and Minneapolis, currently offer zones where blind and visually impaired travelers can download the Aira appand use the service without charge. (Several more airports are expected to offer complimentary service this summer.)

David Wilson, the director of innovation at the Sea-Tac Airport, says blind travelers no longer have to rely on wheelchair attendants. “With Aira, they can get up and go to a restroom, go to a concession,” he said. “It’s independence.”

 But airline cabins are governed by the Air Carrier Access Act, which was enacted in 1986 and does not carry as many accessibility requirements. If, for example, someone uses a motorized wheelchair, it must be checked at the end of the jetway. Wheelchair assistants, often contractors, help the passenger transfer to a wheelchair that can fit down the narrow aisles and then to their seat (a foldable aisle wheelchair is also kept on board).

“The most accessible feature on an airplane is the fact that the arm rest lifts up to get in and out of the seat, and that’s about it,” said Lee Page, a quadriplegic who uses a wheelchair full time and serves as the senior advocacy director for Paralyzed Veterans of America.




The plight of disabled passengers has been well-researched by a number of experts:

An exploratory study of the experiences of wheelchair users as aircraft passengers – implications for policy and practice



Integrating Disabled Individuals into the Aviation Industry


The most common conclusion can be summarized as follows:

  • Poor manual handling of wheelchair users has resulted in physical pain or injury.
  • Wheelchair users describe transfer equipment described as being uncomfortable and providing poor trunk support.
  • A lack of accessible toilets on aircraft has resulted in tactics to avoid using the toilet.
  • Wheelchair users experience humiliation, embarrassment, pain and undue anxiety as a direct result.

Reduced Mobility Rights published a very interesting article about a hoist which appears to address the unintentional manhandling of people confined to wheelchairs. It reported that an “Australian company has been spearheading the introduction of medical grade hoists in aviation. Haycomp Pty Ltd patented the Eagle Hoist concept. The specially adapted medical grade hoist is designed to fit planes’ narrow aisles and is available at growing number of airports across the world. “We have sold approximately 80 units over the last 12 months mainly into Canada, USA, Australia, and Dubai,” Haycomp CEO John McGuinness tells Reduced Mobility Rights.

Last year, Haycomp held test trials of the Eagle 2 hoist at Virgin Atlantic Airways headquarters in Crawley. Follow this link to read more about the Eagle 2 test trial.

Many disabled passengers are uncomfortable being dependent, even worse is the potential to be injured while being accommodated. Awareness and training about the appropriate approach in working with the disabled are probably the most useful steps to improving their experience.






The AA and UA DEI awards reflect greater exposure to the disabled community at work. Those lessons most likely will further the employees’ comprehension of their roles.


















POST SCRIPT—in 1984, I was sent to speak before the convention of the National Federation of the Blind. I was a substitute for the FAA Administrator, the topic was the airlines’ rules for disabled passengers and the event was soon after an unpleasant incident between my former employer (UA) and a blind passenger about the carriage of the cane during the flight. It was a most unpleasant experience being booed almost constantly, but it was an epiphany for me. My personal sensitivity was enhanced extremely.






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1 Comment on "Disabled People and the Airline Experience—some insights"

  1. Nice article. It’s good to see some sensitivity to the disabled. Epiphany or not.

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