As airlines try to monetize seat assignments, are disabled passengers being left behind?


Flying with a disability is never easy, but in the past, airlines have lightened the burden a little by offering passengers such as Scott Nold advance seat assignments.

Nold, a retired bus dispatcher from Madison, S.D., who has multiple sclerosis, travels in a wheelchair. “So he requires an aisle seat,” says his wife, Deb Nold.

But on a recent American Airlines flight from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to Dallas, their airline balked when she requested one. He could have a confirmed aisle seat in the front of the aircraft, she was told, but he’d have to pay another $36.

Not so long ago, passengers with disabilities were practically guaranteed better seats at no additional cost — usually an aisle or bulkhead seat near the front of the plane in economy class.

American eventually offered these passengers an aisle seat, but in their view, the airline should have done it immediately, without asking, “How much are you willing to pay for it?” That’s a valid point. Airlines may be making air travel unaffordable to some with disabilities because of these seat policies.

They have started exploring a rich new source of revenue by asking customers to pay for advance seat assignments. After you buy a ticket, even in economy class, airlines ask if you want a “confirmed” seat. They charge extra for the better assignments, often the kind needed by passengers with a disability. Charging extra for seat assignments has caused some confusion, most commonly among infrequent travelers, who falsely think that they don’t have a seat on the flight unless they purchase an assignment separately.

But a smaller, no less important group, is also being left behind in this seat-assignment gold rush: people like Scott Nold.

American Airlines says it complies with all applicable disability laws and that when the Nolds mentioned his disability, it offered them a middle seat and an aisle seat in the fourth row of the main cabin on their Fort Lauderdale-Dallas flight at no additional cost. They were also seated “toward the front” of the plane in seats 10 D and F on the next leg of their flight back to Sioux Falls Regional Airport on a smaller regional jet, according to the airline.

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“At American, we block seats for customers with disabilities,” says Ross Feinstein, an airline spokesman.

Fortunately, there are steps that passengers with or without disabilities can take to ensure they aren’t wedged into a middle seat in the back of the aircraft. And there are laws and regulations that protect them. But at a time when airlines are unwilling to leave any money on the table, some disability experts are openly asking whether more needs to be done.

There’s a lot at stake. Suzanne Smeltzer, director of the Center for Nursing Research at Villanova University’s College of Nursing and an expert on disabilities and health care, says that being required to pay extra for a preferred seat assignment may make travel too expensive for many people with disabilities.

“Their ability to reserve their preferred seats without having fees added to the cost of their airfare may make the difference between them being able to fly safely and comfortably or not being able to fly at all,” she says.

The Air Carrier Access Act and several Transportation Department regulations that implement the law require airlines to provide seating accommodations that may provide extra space to passengers with disabilities. “However, airlines are not required to upgrade a passenger to a higher class of service in order to accommodate the passenger’s disability,” says Lori Irving, a DOT spokeswoman.


However, there’s a loophole in the law: If an airline designates certain seats as “preferred” and places them in a separate class of service, it is under no obligation to offer the seats to customers like Nold. Air travelers are now separated by elite status and fare category into dozens of distinct groups. Often, it’s hard to know where one class of service begins and another ends.

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The FAA Extension, Safety, and Security Act of 2016 requires the DOT to issue what is known as a supplemental notice of proposed rulemaking — the precursor to a new regulation — addressing, among other things, whether to expand the range of passengers with disabilities who must be afforded seats with extra legroom and whether carriers should be required to provide seating accommodations with extra legroom in all classes of service. The matter is under review.

Disability advocates say action is long overdue. Current regulations may appear to protect passengers with disabilities, but airlines often fail to deliver.

“Airlines do not provide good training concerning disabilities,” says Michael Hingson, Vice President of the National Association of Guide Dog Users, a division of the National Federation of the Blind. “I have seen airline personnel make up rules on the fly and claim that all they are doing is enforcing FAA regulations — something which is false.”

He travels with a guide dog, who needs a little extra space. Should he have to pay extra in order for his guide dog to be accommodated?

“It can be murky,” Hingson says.

Dynah Haubert, a disability rights attorney who uses a wheelchair and flies every few months, says customers like Hingson and the Nolds are not alone.

“Increasingly, I have been coming up against seat-assignment issues when flying,” she says. She also remembers when most airlines, except the discount carriers, would allow people with disabilities to reserve those preferred seats. Not anymore.

When Haubert flew from Philadelphia to Manchester, N.H., on American Airlines recently, the customer-service staff refused to offer her a bulkhead seat, saying that their policy was to only do this for passengers with a guide animal or a fused leg. In fact, regulations require airlines to provide available bulkhead seats within the same class of service to passengers with other types of disabilities if they need it to readily access the air-transportation service.

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Help is on the way. The DOT recently published general guidance on seating accommodations to help passengers understand their rights under the Air Carrier Access Act of 1986. It explains when an airline is required to give you a seat with more legroom, a bulkhead seat, a seat with movable armrests or an adjoining seat.

Disabled passengers may also benefit from a little insider knowledge. Every major airline has a department dedicated to meeting the needs of passengers with disabilities and other special needs. American Airlines actually has two teams: special assistance coordinators who can help with making travel arrangements for passengers who need wheelchairs or mobility assistance, and a disability team that helps with issues that arise after a flight. But you must let the airline know that you have a disability first, and you can do that by checking “special assistance required” when filling out your passenger details online.

Nold says she didn’t know about American’s disability services because she had always dealt with the airline by phone.

The couple’s experience may have been a simple misunderstanding. But if it wasn’t, then maybe existing laws need to be tightened — or new ones created.


Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at chris@elliott.org. Got a question or comment? You can post it on our help forum.

  • finance_tony

    Of course I see the need for accommodating folks like those mentioned in the article. But since the ACAA does not distinguish between guide dogs and emotional support animals, for example, will the “miracle flights” between NYC and MIA also become [more] filled with entitled passengers demanding more room for Fifi?

  • John Baker

    Here’s the exact language from DOT on bulkhead seats:

    Bulkhead seats are seats on an airplane that are not behind another seat. Sometimes, these
    seats allow for more leg room and personal space. Although some travelers on the autism
    spectrum may have needs that can be accommodated with a bulkhead seat, airlines are
    required to give a bulkhead seat to individuals who are either traveling with a service animal or
    who have a fused or immobilized leg before giving bulkhead seats to other travelers.

    Airlines are also required to provide other available bulkhead seats to passengers with other
    types of disabilities if they need it to readily access the air transportation service. The airline
    may ask how a particular seat will allow you to access the air transportation service. For
    example, a child on the autism spectrum may benefit from a bulkhead seat or another seat with
    greater legroom if this extra space is needed for soothing techniques during the flight should
    the child need it.

    (https://cms.dot.gov/sites/dot.gov/files/docs/Developmental_Disabilities_Guide_0.pdf)

    So Haubert would have had to describe why she would have had to describe why she couldn’t sit anywhere else in order to fly. This doesn’t seem to be the case since aircraft have to be wheelchair accessible

  • FQTVLR

    I do not think the disabled are being left behind but are being taken over by the faux disabled. While I am not naive enough to believe that all disabilities are visible (like mine is) I am also not dumb enough to believe that everyone in a wheelchair at the airport is disabled. Some just use it to get through security faster and to get on the plane first. I never use a wheelchair (though I will occasionally use the motorized cart for a fast connection) and never board with those need extra time. I arrive early to give myself plenty of time.
    Spend some time watching people in airports and you can see this is a problem I fly from the Atlanta airport and it is not unusual at all to see people pushing an empty wheelchair through the airport shops and then be sitting in the chair at the gate in order to get on the flight before anyone else.
    I have a good friend who travels with her paraplegic daughter. She says that it is getting more and more difficult to get appropriate seating because of the number of people claiming to be handicapped. Her neighbor, who works for a major US airline, says that the problem is growing because the ADA does not allow them to ask more than a few generic questions about what type of wheelchair assistance is needed. What was intended to protect the privacy of the disabled seems to be aiding people to game the system.

  • Jeff W.

    I would think that someone in a wheelchair would get a window seat, not an aisle. The passenger would sit on the aisle and then slide onto the window seat. The alternative is then having the disabled passenger on the aisle and then the passengers sitting in the window/middle somehow climb over disabled aisle passenger.

  • Jeff W.

    Two other issues with this article:

    ” ‘Their ability to reserve their preferred seats without having fees
    added to the cost of their airfare may make the difference between them
    being able to fly safely and comfortably or not being able to fly at
    all,’ she says.”. Isn’t that really true for anyone? Families with children. Elderly. And so on. In this regard, the disabled are no different than anyone else.

    “Airlines do not provide good training concerning disabilities,” You cannot expect front-line staff to be well versed in all of the variations of disabilities out there. AA has a department that specializes in this, as do many other airlines. If there are specialists, then you know there is a level of complexity that is out of reach for most workers. The front-line people get the basic training.

  • Rebecca

    The problem isn’t seats for people with disabilities. The problem is people faking it. If the airline allowed people to request special seating due to disability by something like checking a box online, people are going to lie. The privacy provided by the ADA unfortunately makes it so just about anyone can say they need it. I don’t have the answer, other than I really hope karma bites those people selfish enough to take advantage.

    Most people would give up their seat to someone with a true disability, for example someone that obviously requires a wheelchair due to something like MS or paraplegia. The problem with this is that those with invisible disabilities can get screwed. We’ve all known a friend of a friend that fakes it or uses their dad’s handicapped placard or something. So we’re all likely to offer our seat to someone that obviously needs it, but unlikely to if it isn’t obvious.

    Same goes for service animals vs emotional support animals. Fortunately, it appears the FAA and/or DOT are going to change that regulation soon. So many people take advantage, the airlines themselves are pushing for regulation; after all, they’re out the fee. But again, I think almost anyone would change seats with someone that has an obvious true service animal, for example a seeing eye dog. It’s the fakers ruining it for those with real (and invisible) disabilities.

  • Rebecca

    I was once on a Southwest flight where an elderly couple was removed before takeoff because the wife had a full leg cast and refused to sit anywhere but the exit row. They offered to accommodate her, and she and her husband insisted she sit in the exit row so both legs could be outstretched. The captain even came out and explained it was a safety issue. She still wouldn’t move and he had them removed from the plane. I don’t know what ended up happening after that, but the plane flew without them.

  • y_p_w

    That’s just stupid. There are clear regulations that anyone in an exit row must be fully capable of opening the exit door and moving any obstructions. A cast is pretty much an automatic disqualification.

  • ctporter

    I have a flight coming up on June 14, I had reserved 6C which is the bulkhead row in coach on Alaska 737 planes. About 2 weeks ago I got a call from Alaska letting me know they had to move me to a seat without the extra leg room much further back in coach due to a passenger with a wheelchair needing to be seated in that seat. I knew the risks of selecting that seat and yes – some airlines DO move able bodied passengers even with prior reservations and higher status (+75k miles per year) when needed to accommodate those with disabilities.

  • michael anthony

    This constant refrain of people “faking” disabilities to get a better seat or on the plane sooner, is sickening. Its hard enough being disabled, but then you have groups of people thinking you’re faking the entire thing. This attitude is based on nothing, but a few antedotal events. In addition the mockery of service and ES animals, seems to be a sport for some. I myself have a serious disease that WILL claim my life within the next 5 years and felt the mockery on the discussion boards. You wouldn’t know it by looking at me, so I presume I’d quickly be labeled a faker.

    You’d think people would be more understanding and thankful they have good health. I guess that’s too much to hope for.

  • Lindabator

    I agree – the airlines are required to accommodate them, but NOT in the seats for pay, just because they PREFER them — it was meant to level the field, NOT give them free perks

  • Lindabator

    Unfortunately, faking disabilities or claiming fifi is an ES when you just don’t want to pay happens OFTEN. And since the fakers know no one can ask any questions, they abuse the services available to those who truly need it. When you book, call the airline and ask for their medical desk – they can work with you to ensure you are properly cared for on the flight, and that you take precedence in seating and assistance

  • joycexyz

    And it also strikes me that they are more accommodating to these “emotional support” cases than they are to actual disabilities.

  • joycexyz

    I like to give people the benefit of the doubt, and also to recognize that most people are honest. You are never going to eliminate the fakers and cheaters–they are capable of outwitting everyone. Making the laws/guidelines more stringent simply makes it more difficult more the truly disabled.

  • joycexyz

    Please see my reply to Rebecca above. Not all disabilities are obvious, and I am so sorry for your illness and the cruel comments you receive.

  • cscasi

    Well stated. I believe people should start writing more complaints to the DOT when they see abuse like the above and also start “bothering” their Congressman and Senators to push to get the rule(s) to be better written so as to help the airlines better control who actually needs the seats and who does not. Of course, I am sure the airlines do not want to take the time to perform that task and would probably feel they would be subject to lawsuits if one of their employees made a mistake when making those decisions.
    Not sure what the answer is, but as others have noted, things are getting out of control, especially with those who line up in wheelchairs to board first and then have two or three friends or relatives board with them as they are “accompanying/assisting the person they are with. And, as has been noted, many can see some of those wandering around until it is time to board and then suddenly be in wheelchairs.

  • cscasi

    Absolutely!

  • cscasi

    Or vice versa. Whenever the disabled passenger needed to use the restroom, the other two would have to get up. It’s harder for the disabled passenger to get across the other two seats than being on the aisle. No matter which way it goes, someone is not going to be happy/satisfied.

  • cscasi

    I disagree with not making the laws/guidelines more stringent. Things are getting out of hand and as the years have passed, we are seeing more and more of that. True, most people do not fake things, but there are those who do and if left unchecked and more and more see how easy it is and there is no penalty, more will be tempted to take unfair advantage. Even one or tow a flight makes a difference.

  • Tricia K

    I have written to Chris on more than once occasion discussing this issue. Before the airlines took away 4″ or so of leg space from most of coach, and then selling it back to us, I could request a bulkhead seat (most of the time I had to ask at the gate because those seats were often at the discretion of the gate agent), I didn’t have as much trouble flying with my personal disability. I have bilateral knee replacements (as do many people, so in and of itself, it’s probably not considered a disability), but my left joint developed an infection ten months after implantation and put me on the road to hell (I am basically only a little better off than those who have their leg permanently straight because they have a rod down their leg). At the very least, I need an aisle seat on the right side of the plane so I can stretch my leg out when the beverage cart isn’t being used. I honestly don’t have a choice but to pay for the economy comfort upgrades (where they sell back the four inches they took away) or I am going to be struggling to walk for the next few days, not to mention dealing with an increase in my pain levels. As Chris suggests, I let the airline know I require wheelchair assistance when booking a flight, but they either don’t read it or they ignore it and I have to seek a wheelchair on my own. Several times I’ve had to wait on the plane after everyone else has gotten off while I wait for a wheelchair (in spite of
    Confirming it with a flight attendant after boarding) The TSA most definitely needs training in handling people with disabilities as well. I can’t stand for long in the security lines or while waiting for a female TSA agent so I can use the whole body scanner and avoid the thrill of a very invasive pat down (that includes a hand being jammed into my crotch and the waist band of my pants pulled out so they can look down into my underwear. It was even worse when I had an implanted pain pump in my abdomen). My last few flights have been especially bad, because the agent has grabbed my knee hard enough to make me cry out in pain, without first asking if I had any sore or sensitive areas of my body. I also got yelled at when, after making me stand for close to ten minutes without my cane, my husband grabbed it (after it went through the scanner) and handed it to because he knew from my face that I was in a lot of pain. You would have thought he handed me a gun from their reactions. I also have bilateral jaw replacements that makes carry on luggage going up or down from the overhead bins into a nightmare. I agree with some of the other comments regarding comfort animals (a turtle for comfort? Really?) and that there are people who abuse the wheelchairs just to skip the security lines or make up some reason to board early), but it can’t be that hard to establish a standardized form your Dr could sign (much like they do for handicapped parking permits) to attest to the actual disability and what accommodations a person might need. I don’t think there is a solution to this problem that will make everyone happy, but I don’t think it’s that hard to establish at least a minimal policy for treating passengers who have a known disability (visible or otherwise), along with requiring a certain level of proof to make life easier for those of us who have disabilities and need or want to travel. I refuse to let my physical limitations stop me from traveling and exploring the world as best I can. Traveling in and of itself takes a toll on me and definitely increases my pain levels on the trip and after. A few simple accommodations can help me keep my pain down to a manageable level at the start of my trip. I don’t think that is too much to ask.

  • Tricia K

    That’s where I think requiring a form from a dr (just like when getting a handicapped parking permit would settle some of these issues.

  • Tricia K

    Outside of my house, I walk with a cane because I can’t trust my knee (I had a major infection that developed almost a year after knee replacement surgery with complications that nearly killed me) to do its job and help
    me remain standing). The looks I get from people if I get out of the car and don’t have my cane in my hand (like when there is a shopping cart right next to my car. I saw a bumper sticker once that said something like “you can have my parking permit if you take the disability too.”

  • BhamPat

    About 10 years ago, we were skiing, and my younger son, about 8 at the time, broke his leg (during the first 30 minutes of skiing, mind you). American was very responsive to me requesting the bulkhead, as he was in a full leg splint until it could be evaluated at home by an orthopedist. The only thing they said was that only 1 caregiver could sit with him in bulkhead. However, when we got to the airport (it was small–Eagle/Vail) they were super, and loaded him on a wheelchair through a lift, since there was not jetway. 3 of us wound up in the exit row, and the other 3 were seated immediately behind. That was helpful with 4 kids, one younger than him. I wouldn’t really expect the same of the airline today, unfortunately.

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