By Natasha Graves
Issues with equal access and inclusive travel are not new topics. It is essentially why VacayAbility exists. There are reasons for my fight and a recent encounter with the airline industry has reinforced the need for accessibility to become a priority in this sector.
First, let’s get into a little bit of background information. I have multiple chronic illnesses that impact almost every organ system in my body. One of the issues includes nervous system damage that impacts my stomach and esophagus, causing issues with digestion. Thus, I am dependent on a feeding tube for nutrition. Therefore, a pump is hooked up to my feeding tube to deliver a liquid nutrition directly to my small intestine, instead of eating or drinking orally. However, my disabilities don’t stop my love of travel and is one of the major reasons that VacayAbility came to fruition.
I am currently planning a trip that includes three long haul flights to get to my destination. Since the total travel time is over 24 hours, I will obviously need some nutrition, especially as flying can make you sick without adequate nutrition or hydration. Unfortunately, Delta Airlines doesn’t allow you to plug in assistive devices on planes, even ones that have power outlets at the seats.
Well how I am supposed to plug in my feeding pump?
In theory, my KANGAROO JOEY Feeding Pump battery is supposed to last approximately 18 hours fully charged and takes about eight hours to fully recharge. In reality, the battery on my pump only lasts about eight hours at my current settings. My supply company doesn’t offer additional batteries for my pump. So what options do I have? According to Delta, I can either not travel or plug in my feeding tube pump during my layovers. However, my layovers are not long enough to fully charge the batteries. Furthermore, the longer the travel day the more of a chance that I will get sick from traveling.
My other option is to do a manual feed. However, with the seat spacing on a flight, it would be difficult to do a manual feed in economy class. Delta said that I can pay for another seat. Also, my feeding tube is located where my stomach is, right below the bra line. Having to lift up my shirt and do a manual feed without privacy is a bit invasive. Just like breastfeeding, skin exposure in public places makes people around uncomfortable so I could also be subjected to the subsequent judgment and ridicule. Delta’s solution to this is do a manual feed in the bathroom or in the galley area.
My other options provided by Delta include not eating for the length of my trip or just not traveling to this destination.
Why can’t you plug in an assistive device?
The power sources on airplanes are not always dependably consistent and the maximum voltage may not meet your device requirements. Therefore, Delta does not want to be liable if your machine is life sustaining or an issue arises.
This is not just an issue on Delta airlines, but the restrictions apply to almost every domestic airline within the United States. Airlines such as Delta and Southwest Airlines, state that you may not plug in an assistive device into the plane power source, your device needs to have backup batteries or must be able to be charged for at least 150% of your trip. Airlines such as American and United explicitly state to not depend on plane power sources. Similar restrictions are in place for international airlines such as British Airways, KLM and Air Frances. Exceptions are made for certain oxygen devices. Furthermore, restrictions differ or may not apply for those assistive devices that don’t require a power source or are strictly battery operated.
Doesn’t the ADA cover disabled travelers?
Short answer, no. The Americans with Disabilities Act does not regulate air travel discrimination. However, there is the Air Carrier Access Act that 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 commercial flights of U.S. airlines, and to flights to or from the United States by foreign airlines. Accommodations can be made for people disabilities outlined in the Act, but there are no specifics in regards to electronic assistive devices. Furthermore, these regulations do not apply to all international airlines.
What can be done?
As a person with chronic illnesses and subsequently disabled, I feel like I shouldn’t have to be penalized for something outside of my control. Why do I have to give up my passion for travel or put my health at risk to do so? I can and want to travel just like non disabled folks, so why can’t companies try to accommodate us instead of shutting the door in our faces.
Personally, I’m not looking for anything complimentary or an upgrade. I just want equality and equity, and to make a point that accessible travel is still not up to an acceptable standard.
So, what can be done?
Contact airlines and let them know that those with disabilities would like equity and equality without additional costs. However, this may not be enough as the mechanics and operations of planes are the underlying issue. Companies like Boeing and Airbus need to be made aware of this problem and understand that accessibility needs to be part of their strategic plan. Lastly, the inclusion of language for assistive devices in guidelines from the International Air Transport Association (IATA), which supports aviation with global standards for airline safety, security, efficiency and sustainability can set a global standard for airlines.