Limited Access to Airplane Washrooms for Passengers in Wheelchairs May Soon Change

Limited Access to Airplane Washrooms for Passengers in Wheelchairs May Soon Change

A Brighter Future for Wheelchair Users: Accessible Airplane Bathrooms and Improved Wheelchair Storage

Airplane Bathrooms

Air travel is often a series of obstacles and inconveniences for people with disabilities, particularly those who use wheelchairs. From inaccessible airplane bathrooms to broken custom wheelchairs, these challenges have posed serious health hazards and limited the freedom of travel for many individuals. However, it seems relief is finally on the horizon.

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) recently finalized a rule stipulating that new single-aisle airplanes must be designed with handicapped-accessible bathrooms. This is an important step toward making air travel easier and more inclusive for people with disabilities. Claire Stanley, a public policy analyst with the National Disability Rights Network, explained that these redesigned bathrooms will include grab bars and a turning radius, allowing wheelchair users to transfer to the commode comfortably[^1^]. While some airlines already have such accessible bathrooms, this rule will make them a requirement for new airplanes in the United States.

However, airplane bathrooms are just one piece of the puzzle. Improper storage of expensive custom wheelchairs in airplane holds has been a recurrent issue. Improper handling and storage can lead to broken wheelchairs, which not only inconveniences passengers but also poses serious health risks, such as pressure sores[^1^]. To address this issue, the DOT has reached an agreement with United Airlines to implement industry-leading actions to ensure safe storage and transportation of passengers’ wheelchairs.

Through a new digital feature on United’s website, passengers will be able to determine if an aircraft can accommodate their wheelchair. If a larger or costlier flight is needed to accommodate a specific wheelchair size, United will refund the fare difference to ensure passengers have peace of mind when planning their flights[^1^]. This agreement was prompted by a tragic incident in which a passenger’s custom wheelchair was damaged during a flight, ultimately leading to her death[^1^]. Linda Jojo, executive vice president and chief customer officer for United, emphasized the importance of offering customers an easy way to know if their personal wheelchair fits on a particular airplane, as it ensures the airline’s team can handle these special items with proper care and attention[^1^].

Moreover, United Airlines will launch a trial program to explore the feasibility of using medical wheelchairs or other types of chairs to safely accommodate passengers whose personal wheelchairs break during a flight. This program aims to find specialized seating equipment that can be utilized within airports and gather user feedback to improve passenger experiences[^1^]. The hope is that other airlines will follow United’s lead, as passengers with disabilities will naturally gravitate towards airline services that prioritize accessibility[^1^].

While these developments are undoubtedly positive, it’s important to note that fully accessible bathrooms on planes are still a decade or more away, given that the rule applies only to new planes replacing the existing fleet[^1^]. Retrofitting existing planes is not feasible, so an extended waiting period is expected before wheelchair users can benefit from enhanced restroom facilities during air travel[^1^].

The DOT is also laying the groundwork for potential future rules, including allowing passengers to remain in their own wheelchairs while flying and improving training for airline staff who assist disabled passengers or handle battery-powered wheelchairs or scooters[^1^]. These initiatives aim to create a more inclusive and comfortable environment for all travelers, regardless of their mobility needs.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg expressed his pride in the DOT’s rule, which coincided with the 33rd anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act. Buttigieg highlighted the impact of these changes on the travel experiences of wheelchair users, stating that they deserve the same access and dignity as other passengers[^1^].

In conclusion, the recent DOT rule regarding handicapped-accessible bathrooms in new single-aisle airplanes marks a significant step forward for people with disabilities who use wheelchairs. These redesigned bathrooms, equipped with grab bars and ample turning space, will greatly enhance the comfort and accessibility of air travel for individuals with disabilities. Additionally, United Airlines’ proactive approach to improving wheelchair storage and transportation further demonstrates the industry’s commitment to addressing these issues. While fully accessible bathrooms may be a decade away, this progress signifies a brighter future for wheelchair users in the realm of air travel. With the DOT paving the way for potential future rules, the journey toward a fully inclusive and accessible airline experience has begun.


[^1^] Claire Stanley, public policy analyst, National Disability Rights Network, Washington, D.C.; United Airlines, statement, Sept. 28, 2023; U.S. Department of Transportation, news release, Sept. 28, 2023