Note: Throughout this report, you will find excerpts of testimony from survey respondents about their experiences, which will help to illuminate what is being lost, and what everyone stands to gain should practices and policies change.

While airlines serve many people, they do not serve all people equally, nor are they serving many Americans adequately.

For millions of people with disabilities, flying is a logistical nightmare. Between the lack of support from air carriers themselves and the murky policy and enforcement practices that surround the intersection of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), disabled people are routinely discouraged and dissuaded from flying.

Discouraging or even preventing disabled passengers from flying is not just an inconvenience to the passengers themselves, nor is doing so merely in conflict with certain aspects of the ADA and ACAA: if those reasons weren’t enough, it also economically detracts from airlines’ potential for revenue by refusing to accommodate a paying customer demographic.

Airlines have a duty to the law, as well as an opportunity for increased revenue. Likewise, the U.S. government has a duty to uphold and enforce those laws for airlines, as well as an opportunity and responsibility to stimulate economic activity, while at the same time enriching everyday people’s lives.

If airlines are unwilling to recognize disabled travelers as paying customers, and therefore are unwilling and unable to provide a level of equity and dignity to all customers—as, we must insist, the law requires anyways—then a combination of government policy and private economic growth strategy must work in tandem to complement one another. Otherwise, the American people are not only left without adequate legal recourse but also severely restricted in their consumer choices. The question is: are airlines for the good of the people, as well as themselves; or are they going to continue to flout the law as well as their own potential for benefit?

To get a glimpse of how challenging air travel can be for people with disabilities due to virtually all airlines’ failure to create and maintain accessible practices, the author conducted a survey of travelers with disabilities on a range of indicators. The survey was distributed using “snowball sampling”—that is, it was distributed to members of the Disability Economic Justice Collaborative, with a request to share it more broadly. While the survey’s sample size was small (just under 100), both the quantitative and qualitative results indicate a strong demand for action on air travel accessibility from the disability community. Furthermore, while the survey was framed around mobility, respondent data have proven relevant to a broader range of travelers than those with mobility disabilities alone.

It is worth noting that American public opinion is in line with these survey results, meaning that disabled Americans as well as Americans of all backgrounds strongly favor making air travel more accessible for people with disabilities. Recent Morning Consult/The Century Foundation public opinion polling on American’s attitudes toward the accessibility of air travel indicates that nearly 9 in 10 Americans (88 percent) think it’s important for airlines to improve accommodations for flyers with disabilities.1

This report will first describe today’s regulatory landscape with regard to disability, mobility, and air travel, and how and why these regulations are so often ignored or misunderstood. It will then review the survey data, which suggests that airlines’ failure to comply translates to a missed opportunity for increased revenue. Finally, the report will close with some crucial first steps for policymakers, airlines, and airliner manufacturers on how to make air travel accessible to all. The recommendations range from things like automated mobility device damage claim filing to redesigning plane seating to accommodate mobility devices so that passengers with disabilities can remain in their devices. While the costs to airlines for these accessibility improvements will vary, they are all intended to remove barriers to air travel by disabled passengers, allowing airlines to accommodate a large and relatively untapped customer base.

How Is Air Travel for Those with Disabilities Currently Regulated?

The ADA is a civil rights law that was passed in 1990, and then updated again in 2010, and is meant to prohibit discrimination of people with disabilities in everyday activities, such as employment opportunities, purchasing goods and services, and participating in programs.2 Ground transportation programs and services are covered under the ADA. The ADA also covers passengers with disabilities while going through the Transportation Security Administration process, as well as when the passenger boards the aircraft while it is still grounded at the gate.

The Air Carrier Access Act prohibits discrimination by U.S. and foreign air carriers on the basis of physical or mental disability.3 In interpreting that rule, the Department of Transportation (DOT) put forward a set of standards of service within which airlines are expected to comply. Section § 382.13 of DOT’s rule clearly states that “a carrier… must modify… policies, practices, and facilities when needed to provide nondiscriminatory service to a particular individual with a disability, consistent with the standards of section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, as amended.”4 Airline carriers have long argued that it would provide “undue burden” to make these accommodations,5 and so while the law exists and applies, in practice there is something of a regulatory stalemate.

As recently as February 2024, the Biden administration proposed new standards for how airlines must accommodate passengers with disabilities. In a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM), DOT suggests in order to strengthen the existing Air Carrier Access Act, the agency must implement more appropriate and timely training for staff, promptly repair or replace a wheelchair, and immediately report a mishandled mobility device6—all measures recommended in this report. The NPRM however does not outline the implementation and enforcement standards or levers the DOT plans to use. The DOT has asked for comments on that NPRM, identified by the docket number DOT-OST-2022-0144, by May 13, 2024.

The last policy we’ll acknowledge requires us to also point out that most airlines receive support7 from the federal government.8 The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Rehab Act) prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in programs conducted by federal agencies, in programs receiving federal financial assistance, in federal employment, and in the employment practices of federal contractors.9 Specifically, Section 504 of the Rehab Act prohibits disability discrimination by a program or activity receiving federal financial assistance. Both the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), a branch of the U.S. Department of Transportation, and airlines themselves are beholden to the Rehab Act.

Survey Results: The Costs of Inequitable Access

The moral argument for compliance is obvious. What shouldn’t be understated, however, is how failure to comply is harming the airlines themselves and the U.S. economy as a whole. What have been the costs of preventing so many people from traveling as they want and need and participating in American life?

What have been the costs of preventing so many people from traveling as they want and need and participating in American life?

The Disability Community, or DisCo, can be regularly overlooked as a consumer group. The American Institute of Research noted that “working-age adults with disabilities are a large and relatively untapped market for businesses in the U.S.,” with a combined total disposable and discretionary income of $511 billion.10 The Business Disability Forum conducted a study that noted that “65% of disabled consumers felt their purchasing choices were limited on a daily basis by barriers,” meaning businesses were overlooking a consumer population that, when considered globally, rivals in size the population of China.11

In the spring of 2023, United States passenger airlines expected a record 158 million passengers12—an average of 2.6 million every day throughout March and April 2023. Similarly, the DOT’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) reports that over the course of 2022, United States airlines carried 853 million passengers, an increase from 658 million in 2021 and 388 million in 2020.13 While airlines noted a loss in travelers during the start of the pandemic, the need, desire, and demand for travel has exceeded even pre-pandemic numbers, and that trend is not likely to change.

People with disabilities14 are no specific exception to this trend, although they are one of the communities limited in their (dignified) travel options. According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics15 and the National Household Travel survey,16 25.5 million Americans have travel-limiting disabilities as of 2022.17 They defined a travel-limiting disability18 as “a temporary or permanent condition or handicap that makes it difficult to travel outside of the home.”

This statistic, that 25.5 million Americans have a travel limiting disability, is based on the 2017 National Household Travel Survey19 response data. However, the data is six years old and thus may be out of date, as there has been a documented increase in the number of people who are identifying as a person with a disability, based on both a COVID Report from the Center from American Progress in 202220 and the United States Census Bureau in 2019.21 The NHTS survey results also do not include people with disabilities living in institutions or nursing homes, which skews the data based on living situation rather than travel need.

Of particular concern is the pervasive trend of airlines’ poor handling of wheelchairs and mobility devices. As we will see, this was a frequently reported incident in this report’s survey data; but broader documentation of the trend has been insufficiently conducted. While the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) notes an increase in ridership as the pandemic has progressed, which likely includes riders who are wheelchair or mobility device users, there has been, until recently, little concrete data as to the number of wheelchairs and mobility devices that are “mishandled” by airlines. Before 2018, the number of mobility devices that were transported via domestic commercial airlines was not documented, nor for that matter were the number of wheelchairs, and thus, their mobility users, that were affected if something with their device went wrong.

“The current status of airline accessibility to disabled population is abhorrent; this needs to change NOW.”

In 2018, DOT mandated that a “mishandled” wheelchair22 is a broader category than merely damaged or broken. It can also mean the wheelchair’s arrival from the flight was delayed, landing sometime after the customer has already arrived at their destination. This is a major problem, not a minor inconvenience: a delay in their mobility device can prevent them from getting to their final destination, from making their connecting flight, even preventing them from using the bathroom at the airport, instead being forced to sit in an aisle chair or folding chair until their device can be found. It also prevents them from being able to react to an emergency that requires swift movement. Furthermore, a damaged wheelchair can often create lasting effects on a person’s life: mobility devices are not easily accessible for everyone, and can be difficult, even impossible for many individuals to replace. And yet, per DOT’s enforcement policy,23 the reporting of wheelchairs and scooters is treated in the same manner as conventional checked bags.

“When traveling from NY to OR in December 2022 with Alaska Airlines, my wheelchair was damaged and required repairs that took over a month to complete.”

To begin to address the challenge of how to stop the mishandling of wheelchairs and mobility devices, DOT first decided that the general public had a right to know how many wheelchairs and mobility devices were actually mishandled. In 2016 (amended in 2017), a legal rule was made and finalized, requiring airlines to report on data on the mishandling of baggage and wheelchairs. The rule requires airlines to “collect information regarding damage, delay or loss of wheelchairs and scooters transported in the aircraft cargo compartment.”

Per the final rule, beginning in 2018,24 DOT began to document the data, with the caveat that wheelchairs were not considered “broken” if they had been disassembled and reassembled, even if reassembled incorrectly. In other words, if the damage or delay wasn’t intentional, it didn’t count.

To compound those frustrations, repairs and replacements of wheelchairs or wheelchair parts can take months to receive, many requiring superfluous doctors notes or insurance hurdles. These hurdles have rippling effects on how people are able to move about their home, go to work, travel locally in their communities, frequent businesses, attend medical appointments, and so much more. With each damage or delay caused to a mobility device, there is a chasm of harm that it can create, lasting far longer than many anticipate.

“My manual wheelchair was completely totaled by United Airlines in February 2023. After 227 days, 5 ATP appointments, and immense administrative burden, a replacement chair was delivered in October.”

While the documentation methods are flawed, we can still use DOT data to get a lower-end estimate of the frequency of mishandling. The mishandled wheelchair data from 2019 came in the last full year before the pandemic, and pandemic-control measures reduced air travel across the United States. In 2019, U.S. airlines handled 685,792 wheelchairs and mishandled just under 1,836 a day. DOT reported U.S. airlines mishandled 1.54 percent of wheelchairs and scooters on planes in 2019, and mishandled 1.37 percent of wheelchairs in 2021.

Table 1
Year reported Reporting period Number of wheelchairs and scooters reported handled  Number of wheelchairs and scooters reported mishandled  Percentage of wheelchairs and scooters mishandled
December 2019 Dec. 4–Dec. 31, 201825 32,229 701 2.18%
2020 October 201926 68,753 888 1.29%
2020 October 2020 21,392 280 1.31%
2021 January–December 2020 259,647 3,370 1.3%
2023 January–December 2021 542,650 7,148 1.32%
2023 January–December 2022 731,261 11,277 1.54%27
Source: U.S. Department of Transportation.

In the DOT’s Air Travel Consumer Report for 2021, published in February 2022 and revised in 2023, DOT found U.S. operating carriers handled 542,650 wheelchairs and scooters, or just over 1,486 a day on average, and mishandled 7,148 wheelchairs and scooters28—nearly twenty a day, on average.

Those are almost twenty people a day whose days, weeks, and potentially months or years to come will have to be reassessed and re-navigated due to the mishandling of their mobility device.

According to the FAA’s Air Travel Consumer Reports for 2022,29 data published by the U.S. DOT shows that in 2022, approximately 950 wheelchairs and scooters were damaged by U.S. airlines each month. That means that between 9,600 and 12,000 wheelchairs were reported damaged in a year, with the potential many people with disabilities do not register their mobility device as damaged, and thus on the lower end of a potentially inaccurate count. The data does not specify the type of mobility device, or where the device was stored on the plane, even though there are legal protections in place for allowing manual wheelchairs to be transported in the passenger compartment of the plane, and airlines are required to prioritize storage of manual chairs in the cabin storage area.

“Prior to using a mobility device, I almost exclusively solo-traveled. I often traveled half the month for work and was very comfortable making my own way. Now that I use a wheelchair, I am terrified of traveling alone. Airplanes’ inability to accommodate wheelchairs on board makes me extremely nervous to use any of my personal devices. I’ve heard all the horror stories about destroying wheelchairs and I’ve already spent so much just trying to get these devices.”

The data trends demonstrate that people with disabilities are trying to travel, but the airline industry is making it impossible to travel with dignity and safety from destination to destination. A crucial question must follow: what impact is the lack of accessible travel having on the economy and on disabled people’s way of life?

Statement of Need

“The constant destruction of wheelchairs is simply unacceptable… and makes me very disinterested in giving a penny to airlines.”

While the aviation industry has seen a boom in commerce since 2021, when pandemic restrictions began to loosen, and while their reported numbers of mishandled wheelchairs has gone down in some recorded years, we do not know if that is related to an improvement in the quality of services or a reduction in the number of people with disabilities traveling or reporting, either due to COVID-19 or the awareness among people who use mobility devices of their abysmal treatment while flying.

It is widely believed by disability advocates and much of the general public that the best way for people with wheelchairs to feel comfortable on a plane is to allow them to maintain their mobility device throughout the flight.

“Airlines need significantly better procedures for loading wheelchairs into the cargo hold safely, though they should ideally move much more quickly in actually enabling wheelchairs to be on airplanes as seats.”

Delta Airlines30 has recently created a model which would allow passengers with a power wheelchair to safely tether their wheelchair in the cabin and would allow the passenger to remain in their wheelchair for the duration of the flight. In light of this step towards increased access, the questions posed that have yet to be answered are: how much more would disabled people travel and how much more would people with disabilities spend on air travel if airplanes were more accessible? Put another way, are the airlines overlooking a paying customer base?

Delta may be creating a significant economic advantage by addressing the unique needs of this community, but in order to measure that potential, it is necessary to understand the current gap in the market. This report’s survey analysis seeks to answer the following questions:

  • How many respondents have had mobility devices damaged by air travel? What are the types of devices that those people use?
  • Would people with disabilities fly more and spend more money on air travel if air travel was more accessible?

Accessible travel is inclusive travel. By focusing on a paying, traveling customer base eager to engage in leisure and business travel, airlines could be making more by directly servicing and supporting the needs of passengers with disabilities. Thus mapping out an increase in trust and potential growth in revenue, airlines should see value in making investments in accessibility on behalf of these passengers. This first-of-its-kind report makes this case—answering the questions above and asking real people impacted how much money they would be spending, if only they felt they could, safely and with dignity.

A summary of the survey and a discussion of the methodology used can be found in the Appendices.

“My family has a vacation home in a state that would require air travel. Usually we go several times a year. That’s been sharply curtailed since I started using a wheelchair in 2018 because air travel is so inaccessible. I haven’t gone at all and my family members go much less often since they have to leave me here. We’ve drastically reduced our air travel.”

Results and Discussion

How many disabled passengers have had their mobility devices mishandled in the travel process, and are there different rates for mishandled equipment based on the type of equipment a traveler uses?

Mobility devices are not luggage. If a device is mishandled—whether it is broken, lost, reassembled incorrectly, or simply delayed—it is much more than just an inconvenience for a disabled traveler. In many cases, until the device is presented in its original working order, the disabled traveler may just as well have not traveled at all. While the DOT collects its own data on mishandled mobility devices, this survey sought to see what the rates of mishandling were for different types of mobility devices. (See Table 2.)

Table 2
Number of Participants who use mobility device(s) Number of participants who use DME, who chose to fly Number of  participants who have had mobility device(s) mishandled % of devices mishandled
Overall 67 59 31
Manual Chair 34 30 18 60.0%
Power Chair 22 19 11 57.9%
Scooter 6 4 2 50.0%
Walker/ Rollator 12 11 6 54.6%
Other 30 26 10 38.5%
Source: author’s survey data. For a full explanation of these results, please see Appendix II.

Data points from the 2023 Air Travel Consumer Report by U.S. Department of Transportation suggest lower numbers of mishandled wheelchairs than those that were recorded in this survey, noting that in 2023, 8,456 out of 604,346 mobility devices were mishandled, or only approximately 1.4 percent.31 One possibility for that distinction in numbers and difference in reporting is that the community lacks the faith that reporting their mishandled equipment will lead to a recognition or conclusion of their stated issue. Alternatively, reporting their mishandled equipment as it is currently set up is potentially too complicated, cumbersome, or burdensome for many to navigate unless otherwise absolutely necessary, especially as the airline is then forwarded the complaint from DOT without a clear enforcement structure or follow-up process from the airlines themselves.

Would people with disabilities fly more often if air travel was more accessible?

This question stems from the many experiences and documented difficulties people with disabilities face, and frames the question from the angle of both economics and accommodations rather than simply that of the latter. The research hopes to highlight the economic gain of investing in accessible infrastructure, leading to an increased access and desire, and therefore an increase in travel, for people with disabilities via airplane.

Table 3


Number of times Percentage of respondents
0 times 30.2
1–3 times 35.4
4–6 times 17.7
7–9 times 8.3
10 times or more 8.3
Note: Data was not collected for 2020 due to restrictions and limitations on air travel during the pandemic. Percentages do not add up to 100 due to rounding

As shown in Table 3, a large majority of participants said that they have had to forgo air travel in previous years due to accessibility concerns. The largest group of participants—35.4 percent—said that they had passed up making between one to three airline trips in the previous years; 17.7 percent said they had passed up on four to six trips per year; 8.3 percent missed out on seven to nine trips; another 8.3 percent said they missed out on ten trips or more.

All together, about 70 percent of participants surveyed said they had passed up on airline travel in the previous years due to accessibility concerns.

All together, about 70 percent of participants surveyed said they had passed up on airline travel in the previous years due to accessibility concerns.

How much more money would people with disabilities spend on air travel if additional accessible infrastructure investments were made?

If people with disabilities felt more comfortable, due to the increased accessibility available when using air travel, how much money would they be willing to spend on average per year? This aspect of the survey hopes to give airlines an idea of the air travel spending patterns of disabled people, should airlines invest in additional, accessible infrastructure for this mode of transportation.

Table 4


Dollar amount Percentage of respondents
$0 3
$1–$500 12.5
$501–$1,000 30.2
$1,001–$3,000 25.0
$3,001–$5,000 12.5
$5,001–$10,000 11.5
More than $10,000 3.2
Note: Percentages do not add up to 100 due to rounding.

As shown in Table 4, a large majority of participants indicated they would spend money on more accessible air travel. While the largest percentage of participants (30.2 percent) indicated they would spend $501–$1,000 per year on more accessible air travel, it is worth noting that more than half of participants (52.2 percent) indicated that they would spend more than $1,000 per year on more accessible air travel.

Data from Optional Story Sharing

In addition to the structured data collected from the survey, survey participants were given the opportunity to provide an anonymous personal anecdote or travel story, as well as suggestions for how to improve the system; excerpts from these have been provided throughout this report. These responses underline the impression that people with disabilities would feel more comfortable flying with additional accessible infrastructure investments when it came to air travel. Comments sometimes contained multiple types of feedback regarding topic categories.

Table 5 demonstrates that sixty-six of the ninety-six participants surveyed, or over two-thirds, provided written commentary, in addition to the pre-coordinated survey responses, regarding personal experiences and suggested improvements for air travel infrastructure.

Table 5


Type of feedback Number of relevant comments Relevant comments as a percent of overall comments* Type of comment as a percent of overall response*
Training re: people 35 53% 36%
Retaining durable medical equipment 23 35% 24%
Training re: equipment 20 30% 21%
Airport/airline accountability 18 27% 19%
Additional/altered Assistance method 14 21% 15%
Aircraft access 14 21% 15%
Other 14 21% 15%
Information access 13 20% 14%
COVID -19 precautions 11 17% 11%
Airport access 6 9% 6%
Additional time 4 6% 4%

*Percentages were rounded to the nearest whole number.

Source: author’s survey data.

Of those sixty-six participants that provided direct feedback, thirty-five (over half) stressed the importance of having additional personnel training for airport and airline staff. Many of the comments that suggested additional personnel training noted that the training should be given by people with disabilities; it is widely believed that people with disabilities are the best trainers surrounding support for their disability, as embodied by the phrase “nothing about us, without us.” An implementation of more standard, unified training done by persons with disabilities would likely reduce the number of complaints and feedback in this category, combined with the continued accountability and oversight to continually and routinely implement and improve this practice.

“I have yet to be able to fly without having to explain the ACAA to employees multiple times. 90% of the time, they will read the law off of a .gov page, acknowledge it, and still insist on denying me my legal rights. Once an Air Canada employee went so far as to take my phone and not give it back when discussing the law and how they were required to follow it even as an international airline flying into the US. Once, United left me on the jetway with other passengers stepping over me because they didn’t have an aisle chair…the result [was] embarrassing at best and dangerous at worst.”

Furthermore, almost 25 percent of all passengers noted that they wished to keep or retain their durable mobility devices while flying in order to minimize damage to their equipment and to their persons. Ensuring that airlines develop a safe practice that allows people with mobility devices to bring their devices on board, either via a securement method to ensure they could continue to use that device or to store the device in the cabin of the airplane itself would greatly improve persons with disabilities safety, dignity and peace of mind when it came to traveling with their mobility devices.

Of the sixty-six participants who provided personal anecdotes, policy suggestions, and solutions, 20 percent reiterated the need for more training on behalf of equipment management. This too could also be solved with an on-board securement or storage system for durable medical equipment, as it would reduce the need for training while allowing those passengers the opportunity to keep their devices handy.

“Two major things: cultural competence training for flight attendants, gate agents, support staff, etc. and technical training for baggage handlers on appropriate handling of durable medical equipment.”

“I think having accessibility service desks with more prominent signs will help travelers more readily identify their resources and options for assistance.”

While this survey primarily focused on the missed market regarding mobility disabilities, there is and always will be overlap of multiple disabilities, including those with chronic illnesses or who are immunocompromised, and thus the subsection of participants in the survey concerned about COVID-19 precautions cannot be discounted in their contributions to the overall accessibility conversation. According to the National Institute of Health, 3 percent of all Americans32 identify or are identified with being immunocompromised, leading to additional risks in contracting COVID-19 or other illnesses, such as RSV, the flu, or the common cold. Eleven percent of adults that have contracted COVID-19 then develop symptoms of long COVID,33 according to the CDC, making planning for long COVID symptom management and health care service needs continually important, including in the transportation sector.

Policy Recommendations

There are several direct actions that the U.S. Department of Transportation, including the FAA, as well as individual airlines and airplane manufacturing companies could take in order to implement changes and improve conditions for disabled air travelers.

“Training of all employees that deal with disabled customers & our equipment!!! And the training needs to be conducted by disabled people. There are far too many misconceptions about disabled people that result in ableist attitudes about us that I feel plays a role in how our equipment is treated. Also, I’d like for there to be video surveillance (possibly body worn cameras) of people that handle wheelchairs so there can be accountability if they damage equipment by being careless.”

The U.S. Department of Transportation, and, by extension, the FAA, could implement the following policies to improve conditions for disabled air travelers and thus increase the potential earnings of their bottom line based on this demographic:

  1. When a passenger books a flight and notes they have a mobility device, automate a response after their trip that allows them to easily file a disability-related claim should they need to, thus forgoing having to navigate the website, and pre-loading their most recent travel information.
  2. Implement a regularly scheduled training program and subsequent exam or review of the rights and proper treatment of passengers with disabilities, to be developed and implemented by people with disabilities themselves. The training program could have merit-based awards, or, alternatively, a demerit-based penalty based on the ability to retain and implement the training knowledge.
  3. Mandate required training for all airport and airline staff on the proper protocol, including planing and deplaning, of persons with disabilities, as well as the proper protocol for handling each passenger’s mobility equipment. Similarly, offer a merit-based award or a demerit-based penalty for those airports that continually fail to comply with the protocol.
  4. Create, implement, and maintain the Airport Disability Compliance Program, transforming into a fully fledged office within the Federal Aviation Administration that tracks the mistreatment of persons with disabilities, as well as their mobility equipment, and aims to enforce the above policy suggestions. Within this office, create, implement, and enforce an improved online tracking system that would allow passengers to report mistreatment of persons or equipment for the office to effectively follow-up and rectify the situation, both for the passenger’s and airline’s sake. Use airport security cameras to record and maintain records of loading and unloading of mobility equipment.
  5. Mandate within a certain, specific time frame that airlines develop and test a safe option for those with mobility disabilities to remain in their devices for the duration of their flight. Offer an incentive to those airlines that take this on with immediate resolve and dignified expediency.
  6. While the focus of this survey centered on mobility accessibility, an additional suggestion resulting from related responses, pertaining to general accessibility and COVID-19 safety, would be to mandate a certain section of the plane be allocated to those wearing masks, with the suggestion that the specific section of that plane have certain airflow requirements. Enforcement for this would fall under the new office within the FAA mentioned above.

“I am postponing virtually all travel due to the lack of COVID-19 precautions taken on public transportation. Now that flights…have all ended masking requirements and other COVID prevention efforts, it is too unsafe. As someone with Long COVID and at high risk for severe COVID if I am reinfected, I am doing everything I can to avoid reinfection such as postponing visits to see family and to access medical care in other locations. [Airlines could] Reinstate masking requirements on flights. Improve air ventilation and filtration. Provide free or low-cost ways for people who are sick to change their tickets so people with active COVID-19 are less likely to fly.”

Individual airlines could enact the following changes to better serve their disabled customers:

  1. Publicly commit to a plan and timeline of improved accessibility that would allow passengers to remain in their mobility devices.
  2. Ensure at least one person with a disability is elected to the board of the airline to support equitable treatment of passengers with disabilities and ensure representation in the organization, and more broadly in the industry.
  3. Employ disabled brand ambassadors and advisors to help create an equitable transportation system that supports these passengers. Engage them to promote the needed accessible infrastructure investments within the company and for the general public, thereby using members of the consumer populations they wish to attract by building trust with those communities.

Airplane manufacturers could support the above policy suggestions and increased accessibility efforts by doing the following:

  1. Hire disabled employees to engage in inventing safe and effective ways for passengers with disabilities to fly more safely and with more dignity, and invest long-term in these suggestions.
  2. Work with airlines on a case-by-case basis to invent, test, and implement safe measures for ensuring those passengers with mobility disabilities are able to remain in their equipment or have alternative, dignified, and safe options for maintaining their equipment for the duration of their travel experience. This includes safely stowing and removing equipment from the hold should the passenger choose not to stay in their mobility device for the flight.
  3. Work with airlines on a case-by-case basis to invest, test, and implement safer airflow systems to ensure better air purification and containment of airborne diseases on flights.

“If I could stay in my chair, I would go on many more solo flights since I would have way more flexibility. I also worry about my chair being broken, especially when traveling for work. I just wasted my organization’s money if I can’t get around.”


When people are restricted from accessing air transportation, they are restricted from participating in a variety of activities in their lives, which then in turn restricts other aspects of the economy. Airlines have a responsibility to customers to ensure fair, equitable treatment and access to travel, and the government has a responsibility to oversee and maintain enforcement of those practices.

Airlines could increase the diversity of their customer base by providing much needed services to disabled customers who have long been excluded from the market, growing the industry’s capacity not only for travel regarding personal reasons, but expanding infinitely to business and leisure as well; more opportunities for overall economic growth as more disabled people can feel safer applying to and accepting travel-heavy jobs, taking more vacations, and continuing to expand their economic impact on the economy.

Airlines then not only have a responsibility to their customers, and their potential for revenue as companies, but also to the other industries that overlap with travel, to creatively remove the restrictive valve that accessible transportation holds over the economy.

There is an untapped customer base for airlines in people with disabilities who want to fly, but, for various inaccessibility reasons, choose not to. Limitless possibilities exist should businesses realize the consumer market they have been missing, and develop, alongside the DisCo, products and services that cater directly to this community’s needs. With this expansion of increased options and flexibility for people with disabilities to travel with safety and dignity, airlines could expand not only their loyal customer base but also their overall potential for revenue, and more broadly, large sectors of today’s economy.

Appendix I


There is no current public data on the potential net gains for airlines if they were to improve their accessibility services and convince more passengers with disabilities to take air travel trips. So we created a survey of our own in order to generate an estimate of the number of trips not taken by disabled people and the amount of money not made by airlines because of this business gap. The survey will help us to estimate the amount of money airlines could make if they directly catered to the access needs of the disabled community that uses mobility devices.

Included in the survey are questions such as “how many times this past calendar year have you had a specific need or desire to travel (a work conference, a wedding, the death of a loved one), and you can get to and from the airport, and can afford the price of ticket(s), but because of your mobility device, have not felt comfortable taking air travel?” The survey questions and a discussion of them can be found in the Appendix III.

For this survey, participants were asked to self-identify as disabled. Recognizing that the disabled identity can be fluid based on a myriad of factors, I chose to include responses where the person did not specifically identify as disabled, but did identify they used a mobility device, potentially alluding to their identity as a senior.

In order to minimize selection errors, the survey is not limited specifically to those who identify as disabled, but does ask the survey participant to acknowledge if they identify as being a part of the community. The survey distribution was structured to prevent researcher bias to the maximum extent, but may still be at risk for non-probability sampling.

For the purpose of this survey and report, I defined a trip as the need for air travel beyond a two-hour driving distance at average highway speeds. In other words, anyone was eligible who uses a mobility device and needs to travel for more than two hours by car, and theoretically had the option to take a flight to reduce that window. To have the option to take a flight, disabled passengers would have to be able to navigate to and from the airport itself, in addition to having the financial resources to purchase their ticket, as well as support staff as needed.

I asked a small group of people (96 in total) to complete the survey on the SurveyMonkey platform, given the platform’s accessibility. Participants had to access the survey through an electronic device, which may have been a limiting factor to those with disabilities who do not have access to said technology. In the survey itself, mobility device users were asked to identify several preliminary qualifying questions for their travel, as well as to predict future travel and general demographic information. The option to include a personal story related to the survey topic was also provided; these accounts will be interspersed throughout the report.

There may be selection bias in the results of this survey, due to the politics of the issue within the community; many people in the disability community feel strongly about their right to travel as well as the current, inaccessible state of air travel, and thus may have felt they needed to make their voices heard on this issue. Additional selection biases or sampling distortment could be further affected based on current economic conditions, the continuation of the COVID-19 pandemic and how that has affected travel, and specific populations that could be more disproportionately affected by these factors. The survey was disseminated in a snowball format,34 in order to diversify the results as randomly as possible, with the acknowledgment that it was targeted specifically at members of the disability community and thus it should reflect the data from that population more so than from non-disabled individuals. The survey was disseminated publicly on September 23, 2023 and remained open until November 1, 2023.

Appendix II

Discussion of Survey Data Analysis

As shown in Table 2, sixty-seven survey participants reported using durable medical equipment. The percentage of devices mishandled was taken by dividing the total number of participants who reported using mobility devices who then indicated that they had previously flown by the number of devices in that category that were reported mishandled.

Of the sixty-seven survey participants who reported using durable medical equipment, eight of those travelers have chosen not to travel by air completely, forgoing the mode of transportation and denying airlines of their business due to their individual safety concerns. That leaves fifty-nine travelers who use durable medical equipment who have traveled by air; thirty-one of those travelers have had their mobility devices damaged, amounting to 52.5 percent, or over half of participants who chose to travel by air.

From there, the survey data is broken down from all travelers that use mobility devices by type of device. It is important to note that several travelers use more than one medical device, depending on their needs at that time and the demands of their disability as well as travel situation, thus the full sum of percentages in the right-hand column will be greater than 100 percent.

Manual chairs were reported as the highest percentage of the type of broken equipment, at 60 percent. Of the thirty-four participants who reported using manual wheelchairs, thirty of them have flown previously, leaving four participants that have chosen not to fly as they use this type of equipment. Of the thirty participants that have flow, sixteen participants reported that their device was mishandled on a previous trip.

Power chairs were reported as having the second highest percentage of devices mishandled at 57.89 percent, following manual chairs. Of the twenty-two participants surveyed who noted they used power chairs, nineteen have flown previously, leaving three participants that have chosen not to fly. Of the nineteen survey respondents, eleven have reported their equipment as mishandled.

Scooters were the least reported type of durable medical equipment across all data questions, both in the survey results generally but also in the number of scooters flown with, and as a result, the number of scooters damaged. Of the six participants that reported using scooters, only four have chosen to fly, and of those four, two of the participants reported their devices as mishandled at 50 percent.

Walkers and rollators had the third highest percentage of mishandled devices, after manual chairs and power chairs, calculated at 54.55 percent. Of the twelve participants that reported using these types of devices, only one had not previously flown, leaving eleven participants who had. Of those eleven participants, six reported that they had had their devices mishandled.

Finally, thirty participants noted they used a type of mobile device not listed, falling into the “other” category. Of those thirty, twenty-six participants had chosen to fly, while four had not; of the twenty-six that had previously flown, ten reported that their devices were mishandled, coming to 38.46 percent.

Appendix III

Trips Not Taken Questionnaire

Goal/mission of the survey: to provide an estimate on the number of dollars airlines could be making over their current profit if they invested in their passengers with disabilities comfort and safety

Intro: Hi, I’m Kings (she/her), and I’m the Research and Policy Associate at the Disability Economic Justice Collaborative, at The Century Foundation. Before coming to the Foundation, I was working at the US Department of Transportation, where one of my primary focuses was consumer aviation accessibility. I know too many people who feel unheard, even with the #RightsOnFlights and #JustPlaneWrong movements, to name a few; even as DOT has taken historic accessibility steps in the last few months.

A great way to make your voice heard is through your economic power. This anonymous survey will take you approximately 5-10 minutes and will contribute to a report, published later in 2023, which hopes to give commercial airlines an idea of how much money they could be making if their ideal customer included someone with a disability, including specifically those that use mobility devices. Showing airlines how much money they are missing by not accommodating our community may just be a lever in incentivizing their accessibility.

  1. Are you a person who identifies as having a disability? (multiple choice or true/false)
    Reasoning: we need to establish that the research pool we are targeting are the people that are actually filling out the survey. Anyone who does not answer yes to this question will have their responses thrown out.
  2. If you answered yes to question 1, do you use a mobility device? (multiple choice)
    Reasoning: They can be a PWD but not use a mobility device – while we want that data we need to further sort based on mobility needs.
  3. What type(s) of mobility devices do you currently use? Select all that apply
    manual wheelchair
    power wheelchair
    walker or rollator
    I do not use mobility devices
    Reasoning: In addition to finding out how much money airlines might be losing, this will hopefully help aggregate the data to illustrate if there are trends of discrimination or neglect based on mobility device(s).
  4. How often would you say you currently travel in a year? For this question, consider travel to be a distance greater than a two-hour drive in a standard vehicle. Travel can be for business or personal reasons. (multiple choice)
    0 times a year,
    1-3 times a year,
    4-6 times a year,
    7-9 times a year,
    more than 10 times a year
    Reasoning: establish a baseline of how often that individual travels currently, regardless of mode of transportation – can you establish that this person travels generally?
  5. By what mode do you primarily travel? (multiple choice)
    Car (self as driver)
    Car (alternative driver)
    Reasoning: Asking this question now sets us and the survey participants to ask later on in the survey regarding the potential of a modal switch with the proper investments in infrastructure.
  6. In a year, what percentage of your travel is work, personal, or both? Survey participants assign percentage points based on category.
    Personal [fill in percentage point]
    Work [fill in percentage point]
    Both [fill in percentage point]
    I did not travel [fill in percentage point]
    Reasoning: I want to be able to point to, if not clearly define, some of the finance players in this. Are people choosing not to travel for work, in addition to personal reasons, because of inaccessibility.
  7. If you travel, do you usually travel by yourself or with others? (multiple choice)
    I travel by myself
    I travel with others
    A mix of both
    Reasoning: adding the cost of another person influences the finance of the trip, and the finance of the trip can be influenced by how accessible the trip is. How many people choose to spend more money on travel to bring additional people because that’s the only way they know how?
  8. Thinking of all the travel (regardless of time and duration) that you took in 2019, 2021 and 2022, how often would you say you traveled by airplane during that period of time (in total)?(multiple choice)
    0 times a year,
    1-3 times a year,
    4-6 times a year,
    7-9 times a year,
    more than 10 times a year
    Reasoning: establish the baseline of air travel based on traveler of what mode they are choosing as an estimated fraction of their overall travel
  9. For your travel listed above, how much money do you think you spent on airfare in total from 2019-2022? (multiple choice)
    More than $10,000
  10. Thinking back to 2019, 2021 and 2022, estimate the number of times per year you chose not to travel by airplane based on accessibility:(multiple choice)
    0 times a year,
    1-3 times a year,
    4-6 times a year,
    7-9 times a year,
    more than 10 times a year
    Reasoning: outline whether or not people are traveling at all, or that people are choosing not to take airlines.
  11. How many times this past calendar year (2023) have you had a specific need or desire to travel (a work conference, a wedding, the death of a loved one), and you can get to and from the airport, and can afford the price of ticket(s), but because of your mobility device, have not felt comfortable taking air travel?
    Enter specific number value.
    Reasoning: from working memory, people can estimate how many times they may have needed to travel by air this year but were dissuaded from doing so because of accessibility challenges.
  12. How much money would you be willing to spend per year on average for air travel if airlines had appropriate accessibility infrastructure to support you?(multiple choice)
    More than $10,000
    Reasoning: What could PWD travel budget look like if they felt comfortable and safe, thus potentially spending more money in this sector.
  13. (Optional) Provide a personal anecdote or reflection on a travel experience you’ve had (300 word max) Please affirm if you are comfortable having a section of this anonymously shared in the report:
  14. (Optional) What could airlines do to make their travel experience more accessible (300 word max) Please affirm if you are comfortable having a section of this anonymously shared in the report?
  15. Do you identify as (select all that apply)
    Cisgender Male
    Cisgender Female
    Gender nonbinary
    Genderqueer / Gender fluid
    Transgender Male
    Transgender Female
    Questioning/ Unsure
    Other (optional specify other)
    I prefer to not specify
  16. Do you identify as (select all that apply)
    Straight/ Heterosexual
    Same gender loving
    Questioning / Unsure
    Other (not listed)
    I prefer not to specify
  17. Do you identify as (select all that apply)
    Black or African American, Non-Hispanic
    White, Non-Hispanic
    American Indian or Alaska Native, Non-Hispanic
    South Asian, Non-Hispanic
    North Asian, Non-Hispanic
    Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, Non-Hispanic
    Two or more races
    Race and/or Ethnicity Unknown
    I prefer to not specify
  18. Are you employed and do you have a steady income? (multiple choice)
    Yes, I am employed and have a steady income
    Yes, I am employed but do not have a steady income
    No, I am not employed and do not have a steady income
    I have a socially supported steady income (SSI/ SSDI)
    Other (specify):


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  2. Introduction to the Americans with Disabilities Act, US Department of Justice
  3. Complaints Alleging Discriminatory Treatment Against Disabled Travelers Under The Air Carrier Access Act and 14 CFR Part 382, US Department of Transportation,
  4. Part 382 – Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Disability in Air Travel, Code of Federal Regulations,
  5. Definition of “undue burden” in section 36.104 of “ADA Title III Regulation 28 CFR Part 36”
  6. 14 CFR Part 382, Ensuring Safe Accommodations for Air Travelers with Disabilities Using Wheelchairs Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, Department of Transportation, February 28, 2024,
  7. Pandemic Subsidies for Passenger Airlines, Air Line Pilots Association International,
  8. Taxpayers spent billions bailing out airlines. Did the industry hold up its end of the deal?” The Washington Post, Michael Laris and Lori Aratani, December 14, 2021,
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  14. This report uses person first and identity first language throughout. The intentionality behind this choice is to honor the preferences, cultures, and identities within the disability community.
  15.  “Travel Patterns of American Adults with Disabilities” Bureau of Transportation Statistics, Monday, January 3, 2022,
  16. National Household Travel Survey 2022, Federal Highway Administration, US Department of Transportation,
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  20. Sarah Nadeau et al., “Covid-19 Likely Resulted in 1.2 Million More Disabled People by the End of 2021-Workplaces and Policy Will Need to Adapt,” Center for American Progress, April 11, 2022,,disability%20than%20were%20in%202020.
  21. Natalie A. E. Young and Katrina Crankshaw, “Disability Rates Highest among American Indian and Alaska Native Children and Children Living in Poverty,”, October 8, 2021,
  22. Title 14 Code Of Federal Regulations Part 234 Technical Reporting Directive #30a – Mishandled Baggage And Wheelchairs And Scooters (Amended), Technical Directive No 30A Baggage 2019 (amended).pdf § (2018).
  23. “Enforcement Policy Regarding Reporting Of Mishandled Baggage And Wheelchair Data” US Department of Transportation Office of the Secretary, October 31, 2018,
  24. “14 CFR Parts 234, 244, 250, 255, 256, 257, 259, and 399 [Docket No. DOT–OST–2014–0056] RIN 2105–AE11 Enhancing Airline Passenger Protections III ,” Federal Register / Vol. 81, No. 213 § (2016), 11.
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  26. “Air Travel Consumer Report – 2021 (Revised)” US Department of Transportation, 2021, (page 39)
  27. “What’s A Codeshare?” American Airlines,,when%20you%20book%20the%20flight
  28. “Air Travel Consumer Report for 2021 – Department of Transportation,” US Department of Transportation, February 2021, page 47,
  29. “Air Travel Consumer Report 2022 – Department of Transportation,” US Department of Transportation, February 2022, page 47,
  30.  “Delta unveils first wheelchair-friendly seat,” The Washington Post, June 6, 2023,
  31.  Air Travel Consumer Report, The Office of Aviation Consumer Protection, US Department of Transportation, November 2023,
  32. Andrea Antinori and Mary Bausch-Jurken ”The Burden of COVID-19 in the Immunocompromised Patient: Implications for Vaccination and Needs for the Future,” National Library of Medicine, August 1 2023,,that%20alter%20the%20immune%20response.
  33. Nicole D. Ford, PhD et. al “Long COVID and Significant Activity Limitation Among Adults, by Age — United States, June 1–13, 2022, to June 7–19, 2023” August 11, 2023,
  34. “What is snowball sampling?” SurveyMonkey Market Research Solutions, 2023,