April 28, 2014 Articles

Cleared for Takeoff: Disability Rights under the Air Carrier Access Act

People with disabilities have specific rights and recourse, and the ACAA is their copilot.

By Mária Zulick Nucci

Humankind has always been fascinated by flight. Cultures worldwide have had gods, myths, legends, and folktales about it; American culture celebrates the Wright brothers and numerous military and civilian aviators; air shows are popular family entertainment; and many movies and television shows have had aviation themes. However, for many people, flight is a particular challenge because of physical, mental, or emotional disability.

History and Key Terms
General discrimination in air service was addressed in the original Federal Aviation Act of 1958, which prohibited unjust discrimination and undue or unreasonable prejudice or disadvantage; this act was repealed by the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978. Before the Deregulation Act, disability rights were addressed in the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act provided that disabled persons could not be excluded nor discriminated against in relation to federal programs. Accordingly, the Civil Aeronautics Board, predecessor to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), promulgated regulations applying section 504 to airlines that received direct federal subsidies. In 1986, the Supreme Court rejected the theory that these regulations could be applied to other airlines because, as beneficiaries of federally funded airport projects and the air-traffic-control system, they were indirect recipients of those funds. U.S. Dep’t of Trans. v. Paralyzed Veterans of Am., 477 U.S. 597 (1986).

In response, Congress passed and the president signed the Air Carrier Access Act of 1986 (ACAA), 49 U.S.C. § 41705. The United States Department of Transportation (DOT) then promulgated implementing regulations (14 C.F.R. §§ 382.1–382.159). The DOT, the FAA, and the courts continue to improve air transportation for people with disabilities, while recognizing American and foreign air carriers’ needs for the proper operation of their services and businesses.

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