Creating real access for passengers with mobility impairment is a conundrum with multiple dimensions

ACA standards drawings and current space for lavatory
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Improving access to airliners for those with a mobility limitations is a positive social good

This effort began in 1986 and the years in between have been spent in Congress, in Courts and multiple DoT regulatory projects

Most recent negotiated rulemaking result still requires another iteration

The carriage of passengers with disabilities is a public positive social goal. In the abstract, there is universal support for this enhancement of the lives of 25 million people who have mobility issues. But when this societal benefit is applied, some difficulty arises: witness that the since 1986 this objective has been before Congress twice and to the courts four times plus the Department of Transportation (DoT) between 1990 and 2015 issued numerous NPRMs and tried  negotiated rulemakings[1] at least twice .

Recognizing the difficulty of finding a fair and equitable solution the (DoT) resumed its quest and started another effort to divine an answer.  established 2 tracks to address this complex issue; both relied on reaching consensus among the advocates, the airlines, the OEMs and the regulators. The first task was published on January 2, 2020, as to short term airline actions[2].

Flight attendant assisting wheelchair passengerThen, nineteen years from the initial surfacing of this issue in Washington, the DoT issued a second Federal Register notice indicating that it was exploring the feasibility of conducting another negotiated rulemaking with respect to the more difficult aspect of this regulatory target–accessibility of lavatories on single-aisle aircraft (plus other related problems).Called the Advisory Committee on Accessible Air Transportation (ACCESS[3]), it was composed of appointed members (Department, airlines, flight attendants, disability advocacy groups, academic or nonprofit institutions having technical expertise in accessibility research and development, and aircraft manufacturers) .  Their conundrum was to negotiate and develop proposed regulations addressing accessible lavatories for single aisle aircraft.

After diligent efforts by all the ACCESS participants, they made two sets of recommendations on their assignment:

The Committee agreed to a series of improvements that would be required on new singleaisle aircraft delivered 3 years after the effective date of the DOT final rule that implements the agreement.

 First, the Committee agreed that airlines operating aircraft with 60 or more passenger seats would be required to:

(1) train flight attendants to proficiency with respect to transfers to and from the OBW[4] and with respect to accessibility features of the lavatory and the OBW;

(2) publish lavatory accessibility information and provide it on request; and

(3) remove the International Symbol of Accessibility from lavatories that are not capable of facilitating a seated independent transfer.

 Next, single-aisle aircraft with 125 or more passenger seats would also be required to have at least one lavatory with a number of accessibility features, including accessible door locks, flush handles, call buttons, faucets, and assist handles. committee.

The proposed rule text refers to “all new single-aisle aircraft” above a specific seating capacity that are “delivered on or after a certain date. This phrasing makes clear that the proposed rule is not limited to newly certificated aircraft models. Instead, it also applies to newly-manufactured aircraft of existing models.  All references to seat capacity in the Term Sheet are references to FAA-certificated maximum seat capacities.

 Finally, single-aisle aircraft with 125 or more passenger seats would also be required to include an OBW that:

(1) permits passage in the aircraft aisle;

(2) fits within an available certificated OBW stowage space; and

(3) accomplishes its functions without requiring modification to the interior arrangement of the aircraft or the lavatory.

The Term Sheet calls on the Department to develop OBW standards, in consultation with stakeholders, and to publish those standards in a proposed rule.future OBW?

INDEED, the most recent DoT document is an NPRM. Not a final document to define what an OBW is. As the Fed Reg notice noted: it is  prudent to gather additional information about OBW design before issuing a final rule.

The next iteration of this process will also address the length of time for implementation:

“The Department notes that the ACCESS Advisory Committee’s agreement would not result in high levels of accessibility in single-aisle aircraft lavatories for a long period of time, and that it would not guarantee such accessibility in aircraft outfitted for fewer than 125 seats which, based upon current trends and practices, are capable of performing an increasing number of missions in the U.S. domestic market, including mid-continental and trans-continental flights of significant duration. Failure to achieve consistent and high levels of accessibility could result in ongoing or increasing barriers to travel requiring future action, not to mention create hardships for persons with disabilities that all members of the ACCESS Advisory Committee wished to avoid. Accordingly, the Department solicits specific comments on whether there are different or more effective performance-based standards that could achieve the ACCESS Advisory Committee’s and the Department’s goals of improving accessibility on single-aisle aircraft more quickly.

The long lead time may reflect a contrary consideration- COST-

“…offering accessible lavatories will require the removal of three seats on board. Over the next 25 years the industry projects a $33.3 billion impact as a result of not having those seats to sell. Separate analysis suggests that from the passenger perspective the impact could be $2.22 per domestic ticket by 2066, or $9.13 per international ticket.”

side-by-side ACA bathroom

Congress amended a chapter of 49 USC which authorizes, and limits, the FAA safety powers. The operative wording points to the Secretary as the position to deal with issues concerning “physical or mental impairment[s]” of passengers. If the FAA had been designated to lead, at least the design aspects of the lavatory and/or OBW (issues within their daily purview), a reasonable answer might have been designed earlier. While further delay is almost unconscionable, the effort needed to define practical and safe parameters may lead to a permanent positive solution. Time may result in an answer that makes air travel convenient to this special category of passengers.

wheel chairs at an airport


Proposed rule would improve airplane restroom access for the disabled

Most bathrooms on single-aisle aircraft aren’t designed to accommodate those with disabilities

By Lori Aratani

March 18, 2022,


current and ACA blue room

The U.S. Transportation Department on Friday announced it is seeking public comment on a proposed rule aimed at ensuring airplane restrooms on future aircraft be designed to accommodate travelers with disabilities — an action it called one of its “highest priority regulatory initiatives.”

For decades, disabled travelers and their advocates have called on federal regulators to require airlines to make restrooms on single-aisle airplanes more accessible, but the push has run into opposition from the aviation industry, which says the change could have significant financial repercussions because installing larger restrooms could mean a loss of seats or galley space.

ideal ACA restroom

Under the proposed rule, airlines would have to ensure that at least one lavatory on new single-aisle aircraft with 125 or more passenger seats be large enough for a passenger with a disability to access it with the help of an assistant, if needed, and to exit the restroom using the aircraft’s onboard wheelchair.

<–One diagram of what the lavatory might look like]

“Far too often, travelers with disabilities don’t have the opportunity to fly to their destinations because they can’t access the lavatories on most airplanes,” Transportation SecretarySecretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg said in a statement that accompanied Friday’s announcement. “This rule would make airplane lavatories more accessible for passengers with disabilities, and bring us one step closer to the day when air travel is possible for everyone.”



Veterans group seeks court’s help in making airplane bathrooms more accessible

As part of the rulemaking process, the department also is seeking to speed the time frame when the rule would take effect. Under an agreement reached in 2016, the proposed rule would apply to aircraft ordered 18 years after the effective date of the final rule or delivered 20 years after the effective date of the final rule. However, the department is seeking comment on whether the improvements could be implemented more quickly than proposed.

PVA Charles Brown


Paralyzed Veterans of America has been waiting for access to lavatories on single aisle aircraft for people with mobility disabilities since the passage of the Air Carrier Access Act (ACA) nearly 36 years ago,” Charles Brown, organization’s national president, said in another statement accompanying the announcement. “We cannot underscore the importance of having dignified access to lavatories for our physical health and well-being, and we must have lavatory access as soon as possible.”

In 2018, the organization filed a lawsuit in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit asking the court to force the government to restart efforts to make bathrooms on single-aisle aircraft accessible to those with disabilities.restroom old

Airplanes, unlike other modes of transportation, are not subject to accessibility rules spelled out in the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990. Instead, the industry follows rules specified in the Air Carrier Access Act, which was passed by Congress in 1986.



The law requires widebody aircraft to be equipped with accessible bathrooms, but it does not require such accommodations on single-aisle aircraft, such as Boeing’s 737, one of the most widely used commercial jetliners.


Could you fit in this airplane bathroom?

The push for more accessible bathrooms comes at a time when personal space on airplanes is shrinking. Lavatories on some of the newer models of Boeing’s 737 are now 24 inches wide, which can free up space for as many as six additional seats. Many airlines are also retrofitting older planes with the smaller lavatories in hopes of maximizing revenue.


Members of the public can submit comments on the proposed rule. Comments must be received within 60 days of the date of when the notice of proposed rulemaking is published in the Federal Register. The notice of proposed rulemaking can be found at or at, docket number DOT-OST-2021-0137.

DOT is holding a virtual public meeting regarding air travel by persons who use wheelchairs on March 24. More information and how to register can be found here.

Wheels Up

Michele Erwin All Wheels UP founder is hosting a working group session in Seattle in September All Wheels Up. She has been working the issue for years.


[1] 80 Fed. Reg. 75953 (December 7, 2015). The six issues were: (1) accessibility of in-flight entertainment; (2) supplemental medical oxygen; (3) service animals; (4) accessible lavatories

[2] 85 Fed. Reg. 27 (January 2, 2020); RIN 2105-AE88. Information on the Part 1 NPRM can be found at; Docket DOT-OST-2019-0180

[3] Accessible Lavatories; Final Resolution of the ACCESS Committee; Annex A Accessible Lavatories Term Sheet

[4] An OBW is a wheelchair that is used to transport a person with a disability between the aircraft seat and the lavatory. OBWs are stowed onboard the aircraft. An OBW should not be confused with an aisle chair, which is used for enplaning and deplaning. Aisle chairs transport passengers between the jet bridge and the passenger’s seat on the aircraft. Aisle chairs are generally kept in the airport, rather than on the aircraft itself

Federal Register page


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