About the project

About the project

Congress created the Air Carrier Access Act in 1986 to ban discrimination in air travel for people with disabilities, but many travelers still report challenges. Meanwhile, people with disabilities are traveling more than previous generations and more Americans are living long enough to require accommodations.

In September, the U.S. Transportation Secretary announced the creation of a federal advisory committee to “identify and assess barriers to accessible air travel,” as well as advise the government on recommended improvements. Called the Air Carrier Access Act Advisory Committee, it also must submit a report “on the needs of passengers with disabilities in air travel” by November 20, 2020.

In the meantime, GateHouse Media will document these travelers’ experiences, hold private and public leaders accountable to their promises, and highlight ideas for how to make air travel accessible for all. This is a dynamic reporting project that we want to be guided by the insights of travelers and airport workers, so we encourage your suggestions and questions.

Why did you start this project?

Reporter Jayme Fraser became interested in the subject after reading a Twitter thread by a traveler whose chair was damaged while flying — twice in one year. While researching the relevant federal laws, regulations and history, Jayme discovered that the U.S. Department of Transportation was requiring, for the first time, that airlines report how often they lose or damage wheelchairs and scooters. She then wrote a story about those figures and, in doing so, reached out to travelers and airport workers on social media. The more she talked with people, the more she realized that a single article could not cover the variety of challenges described to her. She also began talking to people with other forms of disability about their air travel experiences.

Jayme and her colleagues decided to launch the Flying While Disabled website as a nod to the hashtag that first caught her attention. We want to broadly explore the status of airline accessibility today and ideas for how it might be improved.

Aren’t travelers protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)?

Airport facilities must comply with the ADA, which is the primary federal law guaranteeing equal rights to people with disabilities and is enforced by the U.S. Department of Justice. But airlines are exempted. Instead, they must comply with the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), which is enforced by the U.S. Department of Transportation. If you have any questions or insights about this particular topic, please let us know.

Find a current version of the ACAA on the USDOT’s website.

Why are you focused on negative travel experiences?

As investigative journalists, our work often begins with identifying a problem, exploring its causes, detailing its impacts, and tracking who has responsibility or power to make fixes. We hope our work informs conversations about how to make our communities more safe, healthy and fair. A key piece of that involves helping people understand each other’s experiences and the impact particular public and private policies have on their lives.

But sometimes in-depth reporting on a problem can leave people feeling like nothing will change or like their good work making improvements is being ignored. We don’t want to do that. While this project will document the challenges travelers with disabilities face and the sometimes less-than-stellar records of companies serving those customers, we also want to highlight practical advice and concrete examples of how air travel can be better. We want Flying While Disabled to explore both the problems and the possible solutions, as well as their limitations. Please contact us if you have an idea or have seen something that improves the accessibility of air travel.

The federal figures tracking damage and discrimination seem pretty low. Why report on something that happens so infrequently?

A key goal of journalism is to hold our communities accountable to the standards we set for ourselves. The Air Carrier Access Act sets clear standards about how airlines should treat and assist customers who need disability-related accommodations. We want to measure how well airlines are doing at complying with the ACAA and talk with experts about whether existing practices are adequate.

Additionally, our reporting revealed that many passengers don’t report lost or damaged equipment to airlines. This means the problem is likely more frequent than the federal numbers suggest.

It’s also important to note that the national per-flight risk of loss or damage — 1.6% based on data for the first eight months of 2019 — minimizes the real threat to passengers. Since most trips involve more than one flight and many people take more than one trip per year, the overall risk is actually much higher.

Most importantly, mobility aids are critical pieces of medical equipment that can cost as much as a car. They are highly customized and can take months to repair or replace. When an airline loses someone’s luggage, it’s an inconvenience but not a violation of civil rights. If someone’s mobility aid is damaged or lost, it can become an immediate health emergency or deprive them of independence for months — in addition to the emotional and financial costs.

Because of damage or discrimination, some people avoid air travel altogether. That limits their travel options for work, leisure and family obligations.

We decided it was important to write about those issues because of the significant consequences for travelers and air industry workers. We also wanted to help make the new federal data easier to access and read so that travelers can make informed buying choices and have more confidence in those decisions.

How have you learned about cases of damage or discrimination?

Social media has been a key tool for us. We searched Twitter, Facebook and Instagram for people talking about their experiences as a traveler or airline industry worker then invited them to talk with us in more detail. We also created online surveys where people can answer our reporting questions and let us know if they want to talk with us further. Many people contacted Jayme directly by email or phone after learning about this project on social media or through friends.

We also filed public records requests in October 2019 with the U.S. Department of Transportation for more information about disability-related complaints they have received and how they handled them. We are still waiting for that information, but expect it will help us better understand the issue and develop new reporting questions. We are considering other public records request, as well, so let us know if there are data, documents or forms that you think we should see.

If you have other questions about this project or how we’re reporting it, please let us know.

Reporter Jayme Fraser, jfraser@gatehousemedia.com, (941) 361-4923

Editor Emily Le Coz, elecoz@gatehousemedia.com