There are several laws you need to know when traveling by plane as an individual who is blind or visually impaired. As passengers pass through an airport, they are uniquely governed. The building of an airport is under the Americans with Disabilities Act laws. Security is under the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) or Homeland Security regulations. Once a passenger arrives on the airplane, travel is then governed by the Air Carrier Access Act, which is under the Department of Transportation.

Overview of the Air Carrier Access Act

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, “the Air Carrier Access Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in air travel. The Department of Transportation has a rule defining the rights of passengers and the obligations of airlines under this law. This rule applies to all flights of U.S. airlines, and to flights to or from the United States by foreign airlines,” (U.S. Department of Transportation).

Major Provisions for Individuals with Vision Loss

  • A person may not be refused transportation on the basis of disability or be required to have an attendant or produce a medical certificate, except in certain limited circumstances specified in the rule.
  • Airlines must not require a passenger with a disability to provide advance notice of the fact that they are traveling on a flight. However, it is recommended that you call the airline before your trip to confirm any assistance that you have requested.
  • Airlines must provide enplaning, deplaning, and connecting assistance, including both personnel and equipment.
  • Passengers with vision or hearing impairments must have timely access to the same information given to other passengers at the airport or on the plane concerning gate assignments, delayed flights, safety, etc.
  • Carriers must allow service animals to accompany passengers in the cabin as long as they don’t block the aisle or other emergency evacuation route.
  • If the service animal is blocking the aisle or other emergency evacuation route, the passenger should be offered the opportunity to move with the animal to another seat location, if present on the aircraft, where the animal can be accommodated.
  • Airlines must make available a specially trained “Complaints Resolution Official” if a dispute arises. There must be a copy of the Department of Transportation rule at every airport.

Going Through Airport Security with Vision Loss

Procedures for Cane Users

  1. An individual may place their long mobility cane on the conveyor belt when going through security. The TSA officer should retrieve the mobility cane prior to allowing the person through the magnetometer and return it to the individual so they can navigate through security.

  2. The individual may walk through the magnetometer with the cane depending on its material makeup; some canes do not set off the alarm, while others do. Touching the sides of the magnetometer with your cane or hand can trigger the alarm. In all cases, if the individual or the cane sets off the alarm, the individual will be patted down or searched with a wand by a TSA officer.

  3. Some individuals choose to use their mobility cane to navigate to the magnetometer and then hand it through the magnetometer to a TSA officer. If the cane sets off an alarm, the TSA officer examines it and possibly wipes it down with a cloth testing for explosive residue.

  4. Once the cane has been cleared by a TSA officer, the individual may step through the magnetometer. After clearing, their cane will be returned.

Procedures for Dog Guide Users

Some dog guide schools teach their clients to put the dog at sit, extend the leash to its maximum length, step through the magnetometer, and then call the dog. In this way, the person does not need to be patted down, and a wand can be run over the dog to confirm that the alarm was set off by the metal framework in the dog’s collar and harness. Many TSA officers don’t immediately recall their training, probably because they rarely encounter a dog guide, so you can put your dog guide at sit, extend the leash, and say, “I’ll go through first. I won’t set off the alarm. Then, I will call my guide dog, and she will set off the alarm.”

Handling Conflict at Airport Security

If you are uncertain of what to do when going through security, ask a TSA officer. Ideally, the TSA officer is supposed to explain all that they want you to do and what they are doing. If something happens and you feel that it could have been handled more respectfully, request a supervisor and share your concerns. If you feel that the supervisor did not adequately address your concerns, tell the supervisor you want to speak with a Complaint Resolution Official (CRO). All U.S. airline carriers must have a CRO on duty at all times in accordance with the Air Carrier Access Act. The CRO is in place to help bring about a satisfactory resolution for the passenger.

The Importance of Being Polite

When speaking to a TSA officer, supervisor, or CRO, be as polite as you can even in situations of conflict. A friendly and polite attitude can help minimize potential issues. Do not become loud, argumentative, or try to proceed inside the airport without being cleared through security when addressing any complaints. These types of behaviors will put you in serious jeopardy of missing your flight and/or even being detained and interviewed by police.

Navigating the Aircraft and Storing a White Cane

While on the aircraft, individuals who are blind or visually impaired are welcome to use a white cane, but they need to realize their options for safe placement in the airplane cabin are limited. Canes may be stored in one of two places: under the seats in front of the individual (as long as the cane isn’t sticking out into the main cabin aisle) or on the floor against the outside wall of the plane (under the windows). During take-off and landing, it is recommended that you keep a foot on the cane so that it doesn’t slide away from your seating area. Long straight canes may not be placed in the overhead bins; should there be an accident and the overhead doors open, the cane can become spear-like and cause serious injury. Some airplanes have a narrow closet by the first-class section, and the flight attendant may offer to keep your cane there during the flight. However, they are not required to offer this nor can they require a passenger to place the cane in the closet.

Having a Guide Dog on a Plane

Airlines must allow service animals to accompany passengers in the cabin as long as the service animal does not block the aisle or other emergency evacuation route. Passengers with service animals are also not restricted to specific seats on an airplane or required to sit in a particular seat on the basis of a disability, except to comply with Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) safety requirements (only persons who can perform a series of functions necessary in an emergency evacuation can sit in an exit row on an airplane). If the service animal is accommodated in accordance with FAA requirements, the airline staff can’t force an individual to change seats or use the bulk head seating. If the service animal can’t be accommodated at a certain seat, the passenger should be offered the opportunity to move with the animal to another seat location, if present on the aircraft, where the animal can be accommodated.

Identifying Service Animals

When traveling with a dog guide, it is important for the animal to have an identifying tag or harness because not all service animals are protected. Airlines may deny accommodations for emotional support or psychiatric (therapy) service animals.

If an airline employee claims that your dog guide is an emotional support or therapy animal and denies you service or accommodations, you can provide certain documentation to prove otherwise. Airlines must accept identification cards, other written documentation, the presence of harness, tags, or the credible verbal assurances of a qualified individual with a disability using the animal. If for some reason the airline decides not to accept or accommodate your dog guide as a service animal, they must explain the reason for the decision and document it in writing. A copy of the explanation must be provided to the passenger either at the airport or within 10 calendar days of the incident. (This information was retrieved from “Part 382—Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Disability in Air Travel”.)

Additional Information About Air Travel and Vision Loss