November 17, 2022

Chairs DeFazio, Larsen Statements from Hearing on Aviation and Accessibility

Washington, D.C. — The following are opening remarks, as prepared for delivery, from Chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Peter DeFazio (D-OR) and Chair of the Subcommittee on Aviation Rick Larsen (D-WA) during today’s hearing titled, “Accessible Air Travel: Addressing Challenges for Passengers with Disabilities.”

Videos of DeFazio and Larsen’s opening statements are here and here

More information on the hearing can be found here.

Chair DeFazio:

Thank you, Chair Larsen, for calling today’s hearing on improving the air travel experience for passengers with disabilities. 

Three years ago, this subcommittee held the first roundtable on air travel accessibility in its recent history. This is an important issue, and I am pleased that we have convened today’s panels of key stakeholders to continue this discussion.

As we all know, the last few years have been turbulent for the U.S. aviation industry with passengers, airlines and airports forced to weather immense uncertainty in the midst of a pandemic. Thanks to the actions of this committee, the U.S. aviation sector is recovering, and air travel is returning to pre-pandemic levels quicker than anyone anticipated. 

However, despite this welcome resurgence, it is beyond me that in the year 2022, the air travel experience for passengers with disabilities is not improving at the same pace. 

The reported incidents over the last few years are alarming:

  • Just last month, a passenger was stranded at the Orlando airport for five hours after a U.S. airline lost their $22,000 wheelchair; 
  • This summer, a U.S. airline destroyed another passenger’s wheelchair and then significantly damaged his replacement chair only three weeks later; and
  • Earlier this year, a passenger was delayed in receiving her wheelchair at Newark airport, only to discover that it had been abandoned on the tarmac for nearly an hour.

And the list goes on and on. 

According to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics, air carriers reported mishandling only 1.56% of wheelchairs and scooters last August, which is lower than in the month prior and in August 2019. However, that 1.56% represents 1,057 wheelchairs and scooters mishandled in a single month. And I think everyone here today would agree that even one mishandled wheelchair is one too many. 

I can only imagine what the circumstances would have been without the measures this committee included in the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018. As a result of this bipartisan law: 

  • The Air Carrier Access Act Advisory Committee was established, convening U.S. airlines, disability rights advocates, and other key aviation stakeholders to develop recommendations addressing the air travel needs for passengers with disabilities;
  • DOT is working on rules to address safety issues related to assistance with wheelchairs and mobility aids and clarifying airlines’ responsibility to provide prompt assistance, upon request, to passengers with disabilities to navigate within the airport, including examining whether to require hands-on training for airline employees and their contractors; 
  • The Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued reports on the availability of accessible lavatories on commercial aircraft, and?on accessibility best practices for U.S. airports and airlines; and
  • The first-ever "Airline Passengers with Disabilities Bill of Rights" was published, which outlines the basic protections of passengers with disabilities and responsibilities of the aviation industry under the Air Carrier Access Act.  

But while we made some progress to improve air travel accessibility under the last reauthorization, it is clear that there is much more to do. As we’ll hear today, passengers with disabilities still experience challenges with Transportation Security Administration (TSA) security screenings and airport infrastructure barriers, among other concerns. And I look forward to hearing what we can do to resolve these issues. 

For over three decades, the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Air Carrier Access Act have enshrined a fundamental tenet—to prevent discrimination against people with disabilities in all areas of public life. At a time when we’re witnessing unprecedented innovation in U.S. aviation, it is unacceptable that longstanding barriers for passengers with disabilities persist. 

We must work together to ensure these passengers have a safe and dignified traveling experience, just like anyone else, starting at their arrival at the airport to their final destination. 

Before I close, I want to thank my colleague and friend from Rhode Island, Mr. Langevin, for joining us today. Representative Langevin has been a steadfast champion on issues affecting Americans with disabilities for more than two decades. Although our respective tenures in Congress are winding down, his testimony today will provide some much-needed perspective as this committee works to address these challenges in the future. 

Thank you again, Chair Larsen, for convening today’s hearing. I look forward to hearing from the witnesses. 

Chair Larsen:

Good morning and welcome to today’s Aviation Subcommittee hearing titled “Accessible Air Travel: Addressing Challenges for Passengers with Disabilities.”

In my home state of Washington and across the country, the aviation sector is recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The number of flights and passengers is approaching pre-pandemic levels.

This Tuesday, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) recorded nearly 1.9 million passengers screened across the country.

That number is 99%of the total for the same date in 2019, and over 300%of the total for the same date in 2020.

However, one group that continues to face challenges in air travel is people with disabilities.

To improve equity for all air travelers, Congress must understand the challenges these passengers face, from the curb to the gate and back again, to ensure the rights and safety of all airline passengers.

I would first like to welcome my friend, Representative Jim Langevin of Rhode Island. 

I have the privilege of serving with Representative Langevin on the Armed Services Committee for the last 22 years, and I know how committed he is to improving the lives of Americans with disabilities.

The Air Carrier Access Act became law in 1986 and prohibits discrimination against passengers with disabilities in air travel.

Following the law’s enactment, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) issued regulations that required airlines to require aircraft accessibility features, boarding and deplaning assistance, seating accommodations and other aids.

Congress should discuss how to modernize the law’s language to meet current challenges facing passengers with disabilities.

I look forward to hearing from Representative Langevin about his ideas to do just that.

Thanks to this Committee, the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 included several provisions to improve air travel accessibility for passengers with disabilities. Under the 2018 law, DOT:

  • Drafted an “Airline Passengers with Disabilities Bill of Rights,” which was released in July;
  • Issued a final rule to clarify the definition of a service animal; 
  • Began reporting data on mishandled wheelchairs; and established an “Advisory Committee on the Air Travel Needs of Passengers with Disabilities,” among other actions;

Additionally, the 2018 law directed the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to examine best practices in airport accessibility and airlines’ training initiatives related to assisting passengers with disabilities. 

Although the 2018 law made good policy changes, it is critical for Congress to hear from the people most impacted by these policies to examine what is working and what can be improved in future legislation. 

In November 2019, I chaired a subcommittee roundtable to better understand the challenges passengers with disabilities face, including the aircraft boarding and deplaning process, inaccessible onboard lavatories, inappropriate screening techniques, and damaged wheelchairs and mobility aids.

Subsequently, in a report issued in April 2021, GAO found that passengers with disabilities continue to face “infrastructure, information and customer service barriers at U.S. airports.”

I’m interested to hear from Heather Krause with GAO on any updates to that report and other items from the 2018 law that have yet to be operationalized. 

I also look forward to hearing from Brian Ryks with the Metropolitan Airports Commission about airports’ efforts to break down barriers for passengers with disabilities. 

Improving equity throughout the aviation system means improving airport accessibility.

As mentioned, passengers with disabilities face challenges at U.S. airports regarding how terminals are designed and constructed.

To help address these issues, Congress passed and President Biden signed the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law one year ago.

Thanks to the BIL, DOT will invest $5 billion over the next five years to modernize our nation’s airport terminals by, among other things, helping to provide greater accessibility for individuals with disabilities.

This summer, DOT awarded the first $1 billion in funding for these projects, with 73 grants specifically designed for projects to improve accessibility.

In Washington state, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport was awarded $10 million for terminal updates to make restrooms more accessible.

In the Washington, D.C., area, Dulles International Airport was awarded nearly $50 million to construct a new 14-gate concourse to better serve passengers with disabilities.

Regional airports like Dexter Regional in Maine and general aviation airports like Rosecrans Memorial Airport in Missouri are also receiving federal funding to improve accessibility.

I look forward to hearing from our panelists from the aviation sector and disability community advocates on what issues are most pressing and what solutions should be considered.

As we look forward to the 2023 FAA reauthorization bill, this Subcommittee must find ways to enhance the air travel experience for people with disabilities. And this includes ALL people with disabilities, including people in wheelchairs as well as those who may be deaf, blind or have other types of mental or physical disabilities.

Today’s witnesses will provide much-needed insight into the issues facing this community, how U.S. airports and airlines are working to find solutions, and how Congress can be a better partner in these efforts to ensure the future of U.S. air travel remains bright for all passengers. 

Thank you, and I look forward to collaboratively tackling these issues.