American lawmakers dwarf their European counterparts when drafting equality laws truly delivering access to air travel for all.
On Thursday, I was interviewed on BBC Radio 4 (The interview starts from minute 41 of the recording and can be accessed by clicking here). I was asked to comment on a complaint the broadcaster received from the daughter of a visually impaired wheelchair user who was told he had to fly with a travel companion.
The distressed family member alleged her elderly father had travelled solo in the past. However, in this occasion the online booking process first directed her to a dropdown menu helping her to provide the type of support her dad would need during her journey. When answering safety questions she stated her dad would not be able to reach an emergency exit unaided. At this point, she was asked to call the airline for information.
It is unclear if the passenger pre-booked help in the past, or only showed up at the airport on the day of travel and assisted from that point onward. However, this complaint highlights one of the significant differences between European and American air travel equality law.
Worldwide safety regulations requiring the presence of a safety assistant or travel companion usually apply to passengers with a cognitive disability not allowing them to recognize or react to safety instructions; deaf/blind passengers unable to understand and respond to safety instructions and people with restricted mobility unable to reach an emergency exit without assistance.
Thanks to assistive technology and personal skills, some passengers fitting the above profiles may object to the rule, and insist on traveling solo.
European legislation, EC1107/2006, does not consider this possibility, granting airlines the unrestricted right to require the presence of a travel companion "in order to meet applicable safety requirements established by international, Community or national law."
In Europe, airlines do not have to assign safety assistants adjoining seats, but only have to “make all reasonable efforts to seat the accompanying person next to the disabled person." EU equality law does not address the question of whether the seat for the traveling companion should be offered free of charge. Tiptoeing around the issue, the Code of Practice of the UK Department for Transport states that “an air carrier may want to consider offering a discounted rate for” the safety assistant.
American equality legislation, 14 CFR Part 382, is far less consumer unfriendly than its European counterpart, clearly stating that a) the safety assistant travels for free in case the airline overrides the passenger’s self-certification and imposes the presence of a travel companion, b) the airline must provide an adjoining seat for a person assisting a passenger with a disability, and c) In case if the passenger with special needs is unable to travel because there is no seat available for a safety assistant whom the carrier has determined to be necessary, the airline must compensate the passenger with a disability in an amount of up to $1.300 (£ 800, € 950), to be paid on the day and place the denied boarding occurs in cash or cheque.
What happens when airlines don't comply with the rules? In Europe, each individual member has to determine enforcement tools. Nothing will happen in the UK, the only EU country who did not adopt civil sanctions to enforce air travel equality law. Across the Atlantic, the United States Department of Transportation is limited to issuing cease and desist orders and assessing civil penalties not to exceed $27.500 (£17.500, € 20.500) per violation.
On Wednesday, I spoke with several airlines. Lufthansa, Virgin Atlantic, British Airways, Air France, and KLM all confirmed that the carer would travel free of charge should the airline impose the presence of a travel companion on flights from and to the United States.
“If we as an airline determine that the passenger must travel with a safety assistant we have always followed part 382 and not charged for the fare and taxes of the safety assistant,” a Virgin Atlantic Airways spokesperson told me. “In the event that we require a customer flying to or from America to travel with an assistant, we always endeavour to provide this help, for which we do not make a charge,” British Airways said.
“The airline will not charge the fare or taxes for the transport of a safety assistant provided that it is the airline which requires the passenger to travel with a safety assistant and not the passenger’s own decision that he or she needs an assistant,” a spokesperson for Air France / KLM said.
In typical German style, Lufthansa provided the most detailed explanation. “In accordance with 382.29(c) (1) which applies to all flights to/from the United States regardless of nationality, if Lufthansa makes a determination that a passenger meeting the criteria of paragraph 382.29 (b) (2), (b) (3) or (b) (4) must travel with a safety assistant, contrary to the individual's self-assessment that he or she is capable of traveling independently, Lufthansa will not charge for the transportation of the safety assistant. However, I wish to point out that pursuant to 382.29(c)(3) if a passenger voluntarily chooses to travel with a personal care attendant or safety assistant that Lufthansa does do not require, we reserve the right to charge for the transportation of that person,” the Lufthansa spokesperson told me.
The differences between equality laws are appalling at best, consenting discrimination by means of travel destination. We read before what a passenger with special needs is entitled to when traveling to and from the United States. However, if the same passenger were to fly to Hong Kong, all the above mentioned airlines would make the travel assistant pay the airfare, and would not guarantee he/she be seated next to the passenger they are assisting.
The cost factor of adding free travel for a safety assistant imposed by the airline is irrelevant for the industry as provisions can be made within the existing framework of charges carriers pay airports for assistance services.
The real question is why those who crafted the European equality law for air travel, the European Commission and the European Parliament all failed to see the possibility of adding this element of equality and inclusion.
Currently, the European Commission is investing huge sums of money to promote public awareness on passenger rights, an exercise closely resembling the act of building a two story house starting from the second floor. Perhaps it would be wiser, more efficient, and in the best interest of passengers with disabilities and their carers to invest resources in addressing issues critical to delivering access to air travel for all while removing business leaning interpretative rules.
In other words, the lesson American lawmakers teach their European counterpart is one that needs to be learned with haste.
About the author
Roberto Castiglioni is an industry acknowledged expert of all aspects of access to air travel for passengers with different abilities. Providing Civil Aviation authorities, airports, and airlines strategic guidance, practical advice, and cutting edge solutions to support the evolving needs of passengers with special needs is his mission statement. Roberto is a member of the UK Civil Aviation Authority Access To Air Travel Working Group and the Easyjet Special Assistance Advisory Group.