In 2022, Allegiant Air recorded 10.5 disability-related complaints per 1 million passengers. For all large US airlines, these complaints increased 9% between 2021 and 2022, from 1.95 to 2.12 complaints for every 1 million fliers.
The complaints reflect the difficulties millions of travelers face: in 2019, approximately 27 million people with disabilities traveled by air, according to the Department of Transportation (DOT). For many of them, navigating ticket counters, Transportation Security Administration lines, terminals, and jetways can be a challenge.
How many disability complaints do passengers file against airlines?
Travelers filed 1,693 disability-related complaints against US airlines in 2022. Since 2020, disability complaints have more than tripled.
Disability complaints from passengers are up 167% compared to pre-pandemic levels. From 1999 to 2019, the airline industry averaged 477 disability complaints per year. In 2021 and 2022, they averaged 1,462.
The DOT has not explained this rise in disability complaints. However, in its assessment of general complaint data, the agency reports that passengers mostly complain about flight problems — cancellations, delays, or other deviations from airlines’ schedules — which add to passengers’ overall dissatisfaction with their experience. The agency also noted that in 2021, it issued the largest fines against airlines in the history of its consumer protection office. These fines reflected airlines’ violations of consumers’ rights.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a disability can be a mobility, cognitive, hearing, or vision impairment. The 1986 Air Carrier Access Act prevents airlines from discriminating against passengers because of these disabilities. This applies to all flights to, from, and within the US.
For some passengers, a disability can require the use of mobility aids, such as crutches, a wheelchair or motorized scooter, which airlines must accommodate. Airlines must also permit passengers to bring on board any assistive devices, such as a medical device, or a service animal, consistent with safety rules.
How do airlines accommodate people with disabilities?
Aircraft accessibility rules mandate features like movable armrests, accessible restrooms, and storage for folding wheelchairs. Airlines must offer assistance during boarding, deplaning, and connections, with level-entry boarding or ramps provided where necessary.
The DOT’s bill of rights for airline passengers with disabilities mandates that airlines must allow passengers to carry assistive devices, including medical equipment and personal medication, into the cabin without extra charges.
Passengers must check their wheelchair if it cannot fit in the cabin. In the event that the airline loses or damages a passenger’s device, the airline must provide compensation up to the aid’s original purchase price.
Airlines must allow service dogs to accompany passengers with disabilities unless the dog poses a direct threat to others' health or safety, causes significant disruptions, violates any laws, or if the airline hasn't received the required DOT forms for the trip.
Any decision by airline personnel to deny transportation for a service dog must be based on an individual assessment of the dog's behavior and potential risks. But airlines cannot deny transportation of the animal if reasonable means to mitigate the issue exist.
While the DOT reports the number of disability-related complaints submitted for each airline, it does not share details of the complaints nor the amount of time it takes to resolve them.
In February 2023, Senators Tammy Duckworth, a Democrat from Illinois, and Deb Fischer, a Republican from Nebraska, introduced a bipartisan bill to require more detailed reporting on these complaints. The bill calls for reporting on the nature of the complaint and the process taken to address the issue.
How do disabled passengers file a complaint with an airline?
If a passenger believes an airline has violated their rights under the Air Carrier Access Act, they may speak with a complaints resolution official. Airlines are required to provide an official, who is an expert on disability accommodation issues, at no cost. Airlines also have trouble-shooters at airports to help with baggage issues or settle routine claims. The Air Carrier Access Act also mandates that airlines compensate passengers for mobility devices that are lost or damaged while in the airline’s possession.
If a passenger feels that the airline hasn’t resolved an issue to their satisfaction or if they feel that they’ve experienced unlawful discriminatory treatment, they can file a complaint with the DOT.