Handicap access needed in the air

The bus to the airport sports a convenient wheelchair lift. The bathroom in the terminal provides lowered sinks and easy-to-use handles. The path to the airplane is gently ramped. But access for some handicapped people stops cold at the plane door.

A recent flight with a family member, who uses a wheelchair, provided a frustrating demonstration of how successfully the airline industry has avoided requirements for accessibility that other industries have met during this decade.

We flew from Boston to St. Louis with a layover in Atlanta. The trouble started weeks before when we made our reservations.

This airline, like others we've used, likes to hold bulkhead seats as a perk for frequent flyers. But for some people with special needs, these seats are the only ones that provide enough room to sit or stand.

Working through the phone chain of polite reservationists, we were told again and again that we couldn't have those seats, that they'd already been reserved, or that they couldn't seat us together. We did manage to make our trip, by cobbling together an itinerary of connecting flights with what scattered bulkhead seats were open. Nevertheless, a man seated between us on our outgoing flight confessed he'd bought his bulkhead ticket that morning without trouble. On our flight home, when we had to be separated again, at least five bulkhead seats were empty throughout the plane.

Another obstacle thrown up by the airline concerned a foam back-support this family member needs to sit up. Every time we tried to take it on a plane, we had to begin the argument again. One flight was delayed a half hour while we argued at the plane door about whether or not this 30-inch piece of foam rubber needed FAA approval. Of course, passengers carrying their own pillows walked right on.

Although wheelchairs are well accommodated throughout the airport, they can't be brought onto the plane. Handicapped passengers must leave wheelchairs at the cabin door and be transferred to the airline's special "delivery chair," wheeled down the aisle, and transferred again to a seat, where they must stay put till arrival. (Even if they could reach it, the bathroom is too small to use.)

Passengers who can't sit up in the airline's special "delivery chair" must be carried on and off the plane.

The airlines have been allowed to avoid structural changes buses, trains, restaurants, movie theaters, and hotels have been required by law to make.

Unfortunately, the modest provisions of the 1986 Air Carrier Access Act have failed to prod the industry toward greater accessibility. It's time Congress extend the requirements of the the Americans with Disabilities Act to airplanes. A few mandates would make the skies a lot friendlier:

*People who can't fly without a bulkhead seat and an attendant should be given priority in seating assignments.

*A few removable seats should be installed to accommodate wheelchairs and a safe tie-down system when needed.

*Bathrooms should be expanded so that they can be used by all passengers.

*Clear guidelines are needed to help passengers and flight attendants determine what walking and seating equipment can be safely used on the plane.

It's high time to let everybody soar. We've waited long enough.

*Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor.

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