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Aircraft Lavatories May Finally Become More Accessible for People with Disabilities

The U.S. Department of Transportation just announced in March 2022 that it is publishing a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) that would improve the accessibility of lavatories for people with disabilities traveling on new single-aisle aircraft.

“Far too often, travelers with disabilities don’t have the opportunity to fly to their destinations because they can’t access the lavatories on most airplanes,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. “This rule would make airplane lavatories more accessible for passengers with disabilities, and bring us one step closer to the day when air travel is possible for everyone.”

Currently, there is no federal requirement that lavatories on single-aisle aircraft be accessible to individuals with disabilities. The inability to use the lavatory on long flights can present significant challenges to passengers who use wheelchairs. Some passengers, knowing that they will not be able to use the toilet during a flight, dehydrate themselves so that they do not need to urinate. These actions can cause many adverse health effects. Other passengers use adult diapers or catheters, which they may find degrading and uncomfortable. Still, other wheelchair users avoid flying altogether.

Single-aisle aircraft now operate the vast majority of domestic flights, including a large share of long, cross-country flights. The proposed rule would require airlines to make at least one lavatory on new single-aisle aircraft with 125 or more passenger seats large enough to permit a passenger with a disability (with the help of an assistant, if necessary) to approach, enter and maneuver within the aircraft lavatory, to use all facilities in that lavatory, and to leave using the aircraft’s onboard wheelchair.

This rulemaking is one of the Department’s highest priority regulatory initiatives because it advances equity and reduces discrimination by increasing access to transportation for individuals with disabilities.

lavatory sign with handicapped accessible inclusion
credit: Shutterstock

The proposed rule would apply to new aircraft ordered 18 years after the effective date of the final rule or delivered 20 years after the effective date of the final rule. It is the result of a 2016 negotiated rulemaking that was produced through a consensus among a cross-section of stakeholders, including disability organizations such as Paralyzed Veterans of America and the National Disability Rights Network; the Association of Flight Attendants; Airbus; and airlines. However, given this long timeframe and in recognition of the affirmative responsibility of the Federal government to advance equity, civil rights and equal opportunity for all individuals, the Department is seeking comment on whether these accessibility improvements could be implemented more quickly than proposed. Based on the comments it receives, the Department may adjust the implementation timeline as part of the final rule.

“Paralyzed Veterans of America has been waiting for access to lavatories on single-aisle aircraft for people with mobility disabilities since the passage of the Air Carrier Access Act nearly 36 years ago,” said Charles Brown, National President of Paralyzed Veterans of America. “That’s 36 years of fasting, dehydrating and developing medical issues as a result of a lack of access to inflight lavatories. We are pleased that the Department of Transportation is now moving this long-overdue rule forward and see it as one step closer to equitable treatment. We cannot underscore the importance of having dignified access to lavatories for our physical health and well-being, and we must have lavatory access as soon as possible.”

Take Action & Share Your Comments

The Department encourages members of the public and interested parties to submit comments on the NRPM. Comments must be received within 60 days of the date the notice being published in the Federal Register. The NPRM can be found at https://www.transportation.gov/individuals/aviation-consumer-protection/accessible-lavatories-single-aisle-aircraft-part-2 and at regulations.gov, docket number DOT-OST-2021-0137.

person assisting wheelchair user through airport
credit: Shutterstock

The Department is also examining other ways to improve the air travel environment for persons with disabilities. The Department’s Office of Aviation Consumer Protection (OACP) assists, educates and protects aviation consumers by reviewing and responding to thousands of consumer complaints about air travel; investigating and enforcing, as appropriate, violations of aviation consumer protection, civil rights, and licensing requirements against airlines and ticket agents; and assessing the need for and drafting aviation consumer protection and civil rights regulations. Additional information and resources, including information on how to file a complaint with OACP, can be found here.

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Source: Department of Transportation