Legal Protections on Flights

Checking in at airport
You have made all your preparations for an international journey, and you don't want to see it delayed due to flight problems. Learn about your rights, and who to talk to if you have questions or issues.

U.S. Air Carrier Access Act

The U.S. Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) of 1986 prohibits discrimination in airline service on the basis of disability.  Subsequent amendments to the ACAA set standards for:

  • Boarding assistance via lift devices for smaller aircraft, where level entry boarding is unavailable,
  • Seating accommodations for passengers with disabilities,
  • Reimbursement for loss of or damage to wheelchairs,
  • Application of the law to foreign carriers operating flights to and from the United States,
  • Provisions for passengers who use medical oxygen or who are Deaf/hard of hearing,
  • Airport terminal accessibility, and more.

As a result, air travel for people with disabilities has become more accessible. Various disputes have resulted in other protections. For example, if you do not need to travel with a personal assistant, U.S. and Canadian rulings protect passengers with disabilities from being required to bring one.

The National Association of Airline Passengers (see Related Links) continues to advocate for and provide updated information on people with disabilities in air travel.

Airline Assistance Hotlines in the U.S.

TSA Cares is a toll-free helpline number to assist travelers with disabilities and medical conditions prior to getting to the airport. Travelers may call TSA Cares with questions about screening policies, procedures, and what to expect at the security checkpoint. TSA recommends that passengers call approximately 72 hours ahead of travel. Hours of operation are Monday through Friday 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. EST and Saturday, Sunday and Holidays 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. EST. Voice (855) 787-2227. Travelers who are deaf or hard of hearing can use a relay service or email TSA Cares.

Following travel, any complaints you have can be made online or in writing to the U.S. Department of Transportation's Aviation Consumer Protection Division (see Related Links).

European Union Laws

On July 26, 2007 a Europe-wide law requiring airports and airlines to meet the needs of disabled air passengers came into force. This European Regulation (1107/2006) focuses on the rights of disabled people and people with reduced mobility in air travel.

Further guidance on Air Passengers' Rights from the European Commissioner of Transport was posted in June 2012 that addressed concerns about pre-notification, unjustified refusals, and problems with medical and mobility equipment.

If experiencing difficulties with air travel in Europe, a complaints form and the national enforcement body for each country is listed on the European Commission website (see Related Links) or call 00 800 6 7 8 9 10 11.

Other Countries

Airlines in other countries have significantly different or no policies regarding service for people with disabilities. Some airlines have excellent reputations for being very cooperative and helpful to people with disabilities. Others may have virtually no experience with people with disabilities.

Look at your airline ticket to see if connecting flights are being served by a different airline than the one that you booked through, as there are often partner airlines for international flights. Check each of the airlines' websites for medical or disability related information.

Knowledge is power and familiarity with airline policies can expedite the boarding process and save a lot of potential hassle. When possible, carry copies of the specific airline policy to support requests in interactions with airline staff.

Some foreign air carriers may require a medical information form submitted in advance and a recent medical certificate for all independent air travel by people with certain disabilities or may even require a personal assistant. It is best to bring a doctor's letter approving you for air travel and/or listing precautionary measures just in case you encounter these types of policies.

In all cases, the airline and pilot of the flight has the authority to make determinations based on information provided. Some of the organizations listed in Related Links, or disability organizations in the country you are encountering problems, may be able to provide advocacy support.