Braille Monitor                                                                           October 1986

(contents)(next)

Department of Transportation Takes a Hand in the Airline Problem
Federation Efforts Bring Results

At 8:45 on Thursday morning, August 21, 1986, Elizabeth Dole--Secretary of the Department of Transportation (DOT)--filed for publication in the Federal Register a document of historic significance. The document (which appeared in the Federal Register for Friday, August 22, 1986, and which is reprinted in full as part of this article) is entitled: "Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Handicap--Air Travel." This action by the Department of Transportation results from the increasing expressions of discontent voiced by the nation's blind concerning the actions of the airlines.

The DOT document is a notice requesting comments about "airline practices and procedures affecting the travel of blind passengers." It is extremely likely that this request for public comment will be followed by new rules and regulations affecting the airlines. In view of the legislation now being considered by Congress (legislation which at this writing has already passed the Senate which would prohibit all air carriers from discriminating on the basis of handicap) and in view of the growing avalanche of complaints being filed by the blind with DOT and Congress, the review of airline practices affecting the blind will probably get closer scrutiny during the next ninety days than ever before in history. Furthermore, once the rules are made and the regulations issued, it will be difficult to get the matter reconsidered for the foreseeable future. In short, the time is now, and our action must be decisive and reasoned. This is the greatest opportunity which we who are blind are likely to have during the next decade to reduce or eliminate the discriminatory treatment which we have been receiving from the airlines.

Of course, to the extent that we have opportunity we also have risk. The airlines (with all of their close contacts with the Federal Aviation Administration and all of their money and prestige) will be doing everything they can to get rules which will justify the things they have been doing. They will play on the public 's fear of blindness and the myths that we are helpless and incompetent, and they will do it in the name of safety.

Despite the fact that there has never been a single accident involving a blind passenger during the entire history of air travel, the airlines will say that blind persons should be prohibited from sitting in exit row seats and that this is necessary to insure the safety of the aircraft and its passengers. They will not ask that rules be made to prohibit those who are drinking from sitting in the exit rows, nor will they curtail the serving of liquor to exit row passengers voluntarily. If they can get away with it, they will blithely ignore the inconsistency and simply pound away at the safety theme, regardless of how unreasonable the argument. In fact, we have information that the airlines hope to solve their problems by getting Federal rules which unequivocally prohibit blind passengers from sitting in exit rows and mandate other restrictions, and our sources also tell us that the airline pressures and contacts are such that Federal Aviation officials would (if the rules were made today) give them what they want.

But we have until mid-November to take our case to the Department of Transportation, Congress, and the public. If Congress and the Federal officials can be brought to understand the real nature of the situation, the airlines will not have their way. What we are asking is right--and it is reasonable. We only ask for the right to pay our money and travel on airplanes like anybody else. Because of our experience during the past several years, we have more information about what has been happening with the airlines than anybody else in the country. We must communicate that information to Congress and DOT.

Every Monitor reader should contact his or her United States Senators and Representatives, as well as writing to the Department of Transportation. And we must not stop at that. We should also ask our friends and families to write. There must be an absolute avalanche of letters and contacts. It is not pressure but detailed information which is needed. We must tell our stories for the record. This is the time when it will count--and there must be no delay.

Here is the document which DOT filed. It contains details as to where and how to file comments. We have insisted on our right to be heard. Let us now stand and be counted:

DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION
Office of the Secretary
14CFRPart 382 (Notice 86-7)

Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Handicap--Air Travel

AGENCY: Office of the Secretary, DOT

SUMMARY: This is a notice requesting procedures affecting the travel of blind passengers. The notice requests the comments of interested persons on a series of issues and questions concerning air travel by blind persons. Blind individuals and their groups have expressed concern over what they view as improper treatment of blind passengers by airlines.

DATE: Comments should be received by November 20,1986.

ADDRESS: Comments should be addressed to: Docket Clerk, Docket 56e, Department of Transportation, Room 4107, 400 7th Street, S.W., Washington, D.C. 20590. Comments will be available for review by the public at this address from 9:00 A.M. through 5:30 P.M., Monday through Friday. Commenters wishing acknowledgment of their comments should include a stamped, self-addressed postcard with their comment. The Docket Clerk will time and date stamp the card and return it to the commenter.

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: Robert C. Ashby, Deputy Assistant General Counsel for Regulation and Enforcement, U.S. Department of Transportation, Room 10424, 400 7th Street, S.W., Washington, D.C. 20590, (202) 366-9306 (voice) or (202) 7557687 (TDD), or Ira Laster, Office of Transportation Regulatory Affairs, Room 9217, (202) 366-4859 (same mailing address). This notice has been taped for use by visually-impaired persons. Requests for taped copies of the notice should be made to Mr. Ashby.

SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION: Allegations of Improper Conduct by Airlines

The Department has received considerable correspondence in recent months, from blind individuals and their groups as well as from members of Congress, concerning the policies and practices of air carriers with respect to blind passengers. The correspondents have said that many air carriers treat blind persons unfairly. They charge that many of the carriers assert to passengers that their practices affecting blind passengers are required for safety purposes, when in fact they may be more for the convenience of carriers than for the safe transporation of persons with visual impairments and other passengers.

Among the airline practices which are alleged to exist and to be discriminatory are seating restrictions (e.g., refusing to allow blind persons to sit in emergency exit rows, requiring blind and other handicapped persons to sit in the rear portion of the plane), restrictions on the placement of dog guides (e.g., requiring persons with dog guides to sit in bulkhead seats), requiring blind persons to pre-board, requiring blind and other handicapped persons to be sequestered in a special holding area in the terminal prior to boarding, requiring special safety briefings for blind persons, giving discriminatory safety instructions to blind persons (e.g., informing a blind person that in case of an emergency evacuation, he or she should wait until other passengers have left the plane before attempting to exit), requiring blind persons to wait for assistance from carrier personnel before deplaning, and imposing conditions on travel inconsistent with the dignity of blind individuals (e.g., requiring a blind individual to sit on a blanket or next to a person of the same sex).

In addition, the letters have said, airlines are very inconsistent in their treatment of blind individuals. Some airlines permit or require what others discourage or prohibit. It is often difficult to get accurate information in advance about what a given airline's procedures may be, and some airlines do not make their policies and procedures readily available. Moreover, some blind persons allege, air carriers do not succeed in ensuring that their ground or aircraft personnel know or follow airline procedures, resulting in inconsistent treatment by different personnel of the same carrier.

Existing DOT Regulations

Three existing DOT regulations affect airline practices concerning blind individuals and other persons with disabilities. First, 14 CFR Part 382 prohibits discrimination on the basis of handicap in the provision of air travel services by all air carriers. The rule includes more specific requirements for accommodations which carriers receiving a direct Federal subsidy must make to handicapped persons. If disabled persons believe that an air carrier has discriminated against them, they may file a complaint with the Department under Part 382. If the Department's Office of Aviation Proceedings and Enforcement believes that the complaint has merit, that Office may, if informal resolution cannot be achieved, commence enforcement action against the carrier. For example, the Department brought enforcement action against Southwest Airlines concerning that carrier's policy requiring blind-deaf individuals to travel with an attendant in all cases. A decision in this enforcement action is pending.

Second, 14 CFR section 121.586 requires carriers to file with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) their procedures concerning persons who may need assistance in the event of an emergency evacuation. This rule does not include any criteria for assessing the impact of these procedures on blind or other disabled passengers, and the rule does not require that carriers establish only those procedures which are essential for safety purposes. FAA reviews the procedures only for consistency with safety. That is, FAA would not direct a carrier to change a procedure unless the FAA determined that the procedure itself created a safety problem.

Because this regulation does not attempt to impose a single regulatory framework on carrier procedures, these procedures may differ. For example, one carrier may require a blind person traveling with a dog guide to sit in a bulkhead seat; another carrier may permit the person and dog to occupy any seat location. It should also be emphasized that carrier procedures, by virtue of being filed with the FAA under this regulation, do not become, or become clothed with the authority of, Federal regulations. They are simply company policies, which the FAA does not enforce.

Third, 14 CFR 121.589(e) permits stowage of flexible travel canes used by blind persons under aircraft seats. Problems concerning the stowage of canes have not been mentioned in the correspondence received recently from blind persons and their groups.

General Questions Concerning Regulatory Action

The Department is considering whether it should take additional regulatory action to address the concerns of blind individuals. One of the basic decisions the Department must make is whether any regulatory action is needed. Are the policies and practices of carriers concerning blind passengers a serious, widespread problem requiring a regulatory solution? To what extent could non-regulatory solutions or innovative regulatory techniques (e.g., regulatory negotiation, in which representatives of the airline industry and groups representing disabled persons meet with Department of Transportation representatives and negotiate the content of a proposed rule) be used to solve whatever problems exist?

If it is determined that the Department should take regulatory action, should that action be to require uniform practices toward blind persons by all carriers? What differences, if any, should be permitted to accommodate differing equipment, cabin configurations, and overall seating procedures (e.g., open seating vs. reserved seating)? Should the Department, if it decides to take regulatory action, publish new substantive regulations or should it proceed by issuing interpretive rules or policy statements concerning how it will apply the general nondiscrimination provision of Part 382? Should carrier procedures concerning blind (or otherwise disabled) passengers be subject to prior approval within the Department to ensure that they meet whatever substantive criteria may be established? The Department seeks comment on all these issues.

We are aware that the general regulatory issues about which we are seeking comments are likely to be of interest not only to blind persons, but to other disabled persons as well. We welcome comments from all interested persons and organizations on these issues. In addition, while this notice focuses on the specific concerns that have been expressed by blind persons, we would also welcome comments on particular issues or practices affecting persons with other kinds of disabilities.

Specific Issues Concerning Blind Passengers

The Department seeks comment with respect to what position it should take on the following specific issues affecting blind passengers. We are particularly interested in obtaining the views of and information from interested parties on the following questions, but comments on any specific issue or practice are welcome. In discussing these issues, we request that commenters provide as much data as possible on the effects of, rationales for, and safety implications of, differing approaches. The Department would appreciate copies of any studies commenters may have relating to the safety implications of various requirements. We would also appreciate reports of specific incidents (e.g., emergency evacuations) involving blind passengers that may be relevant to the issues discussed in this notice.

1. Pre-boarding--Should it be permissible for carriers to require that all unaccompanied blind persons be pre boarded, regardless of whether they desire such assistance or need assistance from other persons? If so, what is the basis for such a requirement?

2. Deplaning--What, if any, restrictions should be placed on blind individuals during routine deplaning? Should blind individuals be required to wait until carrier personnel arrive to assist them, or until other passengers have deplaned, before they may leave the aircraft? If yes, what is the basis for such a requirement?

3. Emergency evacuation--What restrictions, if any, should apply to blind persons in an emergency evacuation situation? Should blind persons be required to wait until other passengers have evacuated or until carrier personnel arrive to assist them? If yes, what is the basis for such requirements?

4. Seating of blind persons accompanied by a dog guide--Should there be seating restrictions for blind persons accompanied by dog guides? Specifically, should such persons and their dogs be required to be seated in bulkhead rows? If yes, what is the basis for such restrictions?

5. Seating of blind persons near emergency exits--What are the safety risks, if any, in permitting blind persons to sit in rows of seats adjacent to emergency exits? How have such risks been determined? Does the risk differ depending upon the configuration of aircraft? How does the risk differ, if at all, from that posed by other individuals (e.g., elderly, other disabled, or young) seated in the same positions?

6. Pre-flight and in-flight briefings--What should be the content and procedures for pre-flight and in-flight briefings for unaccompanied blind passengers? Should they be required to receive special briefings? Should such briefings differ if the blind passenger is accompanied? If so, why? (Note that 14 CFR 121.571(a)(3) requires an individual pre-flight briefing for passengers who may need assistance in the event of an emergency evacuation.)

7. Emergency information--How should emergency information be communicated to blind individuals at various times (e.g., the beginning of flight, during an emergency)?

8. Training of carrier personnel--Should carrier personnel be required to receive training concerning how to relate respectfully, courteously, and helpfully to blind persons? If so, what should be the criteria for providing such training, and what substantive information should be provided? What procedures should carrier personnel follow in order to best serve blind passengers?

9. Notification--Should blind persons traveling unaccompanied be required to notify carriers in advance of their disability? If so, should such notification be given at the same time that the reservation is made, the time of ticketing, or at the time of boarding? What would be the basis for such a requirement, as applied to blind persons who did not desire special assistance?

10. One group of blind persons has requested that airlines have no special conditions or procedures for dealing with blind passengers at all, suggesting that blind passengers simply be regarded as part of the general passenger population. What are the likely safety and service impacts of the elimination of all special practices and procedures affecting blind persons? Would such an outcome be desirable? If so, would it be appropriate for the Department to mandate this outcome by regulation?

We ask that commenters, in responding to these questions, consider whether any different rules or standards should apply to small aircraft. If the Department decides to promulgate further rules in this area, should the rules apply to operations under both 14 CFR Part 121 (e.g., large air carriers) and 14 CFR Part 135 (e.g., air taxis), or only to the former? Should any different requirements apply to flights that do not use flight attendants?

It appears that changes in airline practices concerning blind passengers about which this notice seeks comment would not be costly for airlines to implement. They would not require alterations in the physical configuration of aircraft, for example. Any changes in carrier operations would seem to be administrative in character. Nevertheless, we seek comment on what, if any, cost impacts such changes would have? Would such changes result in undue financial or administrative burdens on carriers?

In connection with this notice, the Department has asked the FAA to compile, from the procedures filed under 14 CFR section 121.586, the various carriers' policies affecting blind passengers. We also request that each carrier review its own filings, ensure that they are current, and inform the Department of any practices affecting the transportation of blind passengers that may not specifically appear in its filings.

On June 27, 1986, the Supreme Court decided the case of DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION v. PARALYZED VETERANS OF AMERICA. By a 6-3 vote, the Court held that section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 does not apply to non-subsidized air carriers, since they are not recipients of Federal financial assistance. The ruling leaves intact the existing provisions of 14 CFR Part 382, the Department's regulation concerning air transportation services for disabled persons. In making its decisions concerning whether additional regulatory action with respect to disabled airline passengers is appropriate, we will consider our discretion under the legal authorities available to the Department. Issued this 5th day of August 1986, at Washington, D.C.

Elizabeth Hanford Dole, Secretary

(FRDoc. 86-19044. Filed 8-21-86; 8:45 a.m.)
Billing Code: 4910-62-M

 

If you or a friend would like to remember the National Federation of the Blind in your will, you can do so by employing the following language:

"I give, devise, and bequeath unto National Federation of the Blind, 1800 Johnson Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21230, a District of Columbia nonprofit Corporation, the sum of $ _________ (or "percent of my net estate" or "The following stocks and bonds: ") to be used for its worthy purposes on behalf of blind persons."