Flying in this day and age can be inconvenient and uncomfortable even for able-bodied passengers, but for travelers with disabilities, the experience often ranges from a nightmarish juggling act to altogether impossible. But at least one aspect of the in-flight experience is finally poised to improve for fliers with disabilities.
After years of review dating back to the Obama administration, the Department of Transportation (DOT) announced on Wednesday that it had finalized regulations to require new narrow-body planes to have accessible bathrooms. The ruling, an amendment to the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) of 1986, is a consequential step toward making air travel for disabled passengers easier.
Twin-aisle, wide-body aircraft (typically seen on long-haul international flights) are already mandated to have accessible lavatories. Now, this legislation will require single-aisle planes with at least 125 seats to have a similar setup. The lavatory must permit a person with a disability and an attendant to move freely and provide privacy equivalent to that of ambulatory passengers.
That impacts popular planes, such as the Boeing 737 and Airbus A320 family, operated by the major U.S. carriers. According to the DOT, most domestic flights in the U.S. between 1,500 and 3,000 miles are operated with narrow-body aircraft (86 percent in 2021). And as equipment becomes more efficient, single-aisle planes are flying even longer international routes.
For instance, a 3,600-mile flight over the Atlantic between New York and Paris on JetBlue, one that clocks in at more than seven hours, is operated by a single-aisle Airbus A321LR. Similar to most airlines that operate this aircraft type, JetBlue does not have accessible lavatories. The A321LR has a range of up to 4,000 miles and flights can take up to eight hours from wheels up to wheels down.
“The inability to safely access and use the lavatory on long flights can impact the dignity of passengers with disabilities and deter them from traveling by air, limiting their independence and freedom to travel,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a statement. “This final rule addresses a human rights issue.”
In addition to larger lavatories, the DOT will require a number of other features, including grab bars, accessible faucets and controls, accessible call buttons and door locks, minimum obstruction to the passage of an onboard wheelchair, toe clearance, and an available visual barrier for privacy.
Two other groups will likely appreciate the DOT mandates. “We also anticipate that the rule will indirectly benefit passengers of size and families with small children,” Buttigieg added.
However, don’t expect this ruling to take effect overnight; in fact, it’s expected to be more than a decade before airlines are required to comply. The ACAA amendment will apply to new single-aisle planes that airlines order beginning in 2033 or that are delivered beginning in 2035. In addition, airlines will not have to retrofit existing planes unless the onboard lavatory is replaced during an interior renovation.
Still, the news comes as a relief for Cory Lee, an accessible travel writer and wheelchair user.
“I am incredibly happy that accessible restrooms will soon be more widely available on planes and I know that it will make flying so much easier for many people with disabilities; it could potentially open up flying to many for the first time,” Lee said in an interview with AFAR.
In the finalized regulations, Secretary Buttigieg acknowledged the “degrading” actions passengers with disabilities must endure to fly, including, but not limited to, withholding bodily fluids or using adult diapers and catheters.
For Lee, a world traveler who has visited 43 countries and all seven continents, that’s been his normal procedure. “Typically, I start dehydrating myself about 24 hours before flight and start limiting what foods I eat about 48 hours in advance,” he stated. ”I do all of that to avoid needing to use the restroom on a flight.”
While accessible lavatory options exist for single-aisle planes, airlines have mostly chosen to forgo them in favor of an extra seats or more galley space. The news comes a little more than a month after Delta Flight Products, a subsidiary of Delta Air Lines, debuted a prototype of an airplane seat that will allow travelers who use a wheelchair to bring their wheelchair onto the aircraft. Currently, passengers aren’t able to use their own personal wheelchairs as a seat on an airplane. Instead, after checking in their wheelchair, they are then taken to the gate via an airline-provided wheelchair service, and then transferred to their seat where, for those who are fully reliant on their wheelchairs, they remain for the duration of the flight. The new seat design, if it is approved and manufactured, would be a game changer and another win for wheelchair-using travelers in addition to the accessible lavatories.