Vet­er­ans group files suit against U.S.

Wants plane bath­rooms to be more ac­ces­si­ble for those with dis­abil­i­ties

The Washington Post Sunday - - COMMUTER - BY LORI ARATANI [email protected]­

A vet­er­ans group is turn­ing to the courts for help in its ef­forts to make air­plane bath­rooms more ac­ces­si­ble for trav­el­ers with dis­abil­i­ties.

Par­a­lyzed Vet­er­ans of Amer­ica filed a law­suit Thurs­day in the U.S. Court of Ap­peals for the 10th Cir­cuit ask­ing the court to force the Trans­porta­tion Depart­ment to restart ef­forts to make bath­rooms on sin­gle-aisle air­craft ac­ces­si­ble to those with dis­abil­i­ties.

“Our suit is sim­ply ask­ing the [Trans­porta­tion Depart­ment] to do what Con­gress di­rected them to do,” said Kar­i­anne M. Jones, an at­tor­ney with the Democ­racy For­ward Foun­da­tion, which is rep­re­sent­ing the vet­er­ans group.

Af­ter years of de­bate, ad­vo­cates were heart­ened when, in 2016, a com­mit­tee con­vened by the Trans­porta­tion Depart­ment, reached a con­sen­sus on im­prov­ing bath­room ac­ces­si­bil­ity.

“The agree­ment . . . is an im­por­tant step to­wards en­sur­ing that air trav­el­ers with dis­abil­i­ties have equal ac­cess to air trans­porta­tion,” then-Trans­porta­tion Sec­re­tary An­thony Foxx said. “It is un­fair to ex­pect in­di­vid­u­als with lim­ited mo­bil­ity to re­frain from us­ing the re­stroom when they fly on sin­gle-aisle air­craft, par­tic­u­larly since sin­gle-aisle air­craft are in­creas­ingly used for longer flights.”

Foxx an­nounced a July 2017 dead­line for mov­ing the rule for­ward.

But the suit says not only has the depart­ment missed the dead­line, but the agency has also sig­naled it will not fol­low the di­rec­tive. The ef­fort “ground to a halt when, in Spring 2018, the Depart­ment moved the La­va­tory Ac­ces­si­bil­ity Rule to its long-term agenda and there­after re­moved it al­to­gether, sig­ni­fy­ing that it has no plans to move for­ward on the rule any­time soon,” the suit says.

The depart­ment did not re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment on the de­lay or the suit. But the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion pre­vi­ously an­nounced it was halt­ing new rule­mak­ing.

Air­planes, un­like other modes of trans­porta­tion, are not sub­ject to ac­ces­si­bil­ity rules spelled out in the Amer­i­cans with Dis­abil­i­ties Act of 1990. In­stead, the in­dus­try follows rules spec­i­fied in the Air Car­rier Ac­cess Act, which was passed by Con­gress in 1986.

The law re­quires wide-body air­craft to be equipped with ac­ces­si­ble bath­rooms, but it does not re­quire such ac­com­mo­da­tions on sin­gle-aisle air­craft, such as Boe­ing’s 737, one of the most widely used com­mer­cial jet­lin­ers. Though there has been a sus­tained push for change, it has run into re­sis­tance from the air­line in­dus­try, which says the move could have sig­nif­i­cant fi­nan­cial reper­cus­sions be­cause in­stalling larger bath­rooms could mean a loss of seats or gal­ley space.

In 2016, the Trans­porta­tion Depart­ment formed a com­mit­tee that in­cluded rep­re­sen­ta­tives from the air­line in­dus­try, flight at­ten­dants, air­craft man­u­fac­tur­ers as well as ad­vo­cates for peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties, to ex­plore the bath­room ques­tion and other is­sues. Later that year, the group reached a con­sen­sus.

The com­mit­tee agreed bath­rooms should be made ac­ces­si­ble but did not re­quire cur­rent air­craft to be retro­fit­ted. In­stead, the group out­lined short- and longterm strate­gies for reach­ing the goal of eas­ier ac­cess.

Jones, who rep­re­sents the vet­er­ans group, said the pub­lic of­ten doesn’t re­al­ize that fly­ing poses spe­cial chal­lenges for trav­el­ers with dis­abil­i­ties.

The depart­ment re­quires planes with 60 or more seats to pro­vide a wheel­chair for peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties, as long as the air­line has been given 48 hours’ no­tice. The chairs are de­signed to help dis­abled pas­sen­gers get to the bath­room door — but the chairs do not have to fit inside the la­va­tory.

James Thomas Wheaton Jr. trav­els fre­quently for his job as na­tional trea­surer for Par­a­lyzed Vet­er­ans of Amer­ica. But fly­ing fills him with dread, he said in a dec­la­ra­tion in­cluded in the suit. The Navy vet­eran is par­a­lyzed, and get­ting to the air­plane bath­room is of­ten an or­deal — so much so that he lim­its how much he eats and drinks on the day be­fore the flight. He also wears pro­tec­tive un­der­gar­ments on the plane.

The push for more ac­ces­si­ble bath­rooms comes at a time when per­sonal space on air­planes is shrink­ing. La­va­to­ries on some of the newer mod­els of Boe­ing’s 737 are now 24 inches wide, which can free up space for as many as six ad­di­tional seats. Many air­lines are also retrofitting older planes with the smaller la­va­to­ries in hopes of max­i­miz­ing rev­enue.

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