Filing a Disability-Related Complaint to the Department of Transportation

Filing a disability-related complaint to the federal government (e.g., for disability discrimination; damage to wheelchairs, scooters, walkers, etc) can be an effective tool to advocate for yourself as well as inform the government of issues people with disabilities face while traveling. We explore:

In its latest report (2020 report for travel in 2019), the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) reported that approximately 27 million people with disabilities traveled by air. For the same year, the DOT received 42,418 disability-related complaints, 47% of which related to the failure to provide adequate assistance to people using wheelchairs. The total number of disability-related complaints rose almost 15% from 2018. The DOT did not opine as to the cause for this “spike” in complaints, but was investigating the same.

An archive of prior years’ reports on disability-related complaints is compiled here. Additionally, the DOT has compiled its latest notices of proposed rulemaking, final rules, guidance, enforcement actions, and reports here.

Know Your Accessibility Rights on Airplanes

The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) governs all flights of U.S. airlines, as well as all flights that leave from or land at a U.S. airport. The DOT is charged with overseeing the ACAA, and has distilled the ACAA and its implementing regulations (14 CFR Part 382) into an easier-to-use Airline Passengers with Disabilities Bill of Rights. The DOT also provides a helpful FAQ on Traveling with Wheelchairs and Other Assistive Devices. These resources are not exhaustive, but are good starting points for communicating with airline personnel and understanding your basic rights with air travel.

Top Ten Takeaways from the Bill of Rights and FAQ:

  • “You can request that your wheelchair or walker be returned to you on the jet way at your destination airport and not the baggage claim area.  Airlines are required to return wheelchairs to users as closely as possible to the door of the aircraft if requested.”
  • “Airlines must allow a passenger with a disability who self-identifies at the gate as needing additional time or assistance to board, stow accessibility equipment, or be seated, the opportunity to board before all other passengers.”
  • “Passengers with disabilities must be provided prompt and timely boarding and deplaning assistance, upon request, from properly trained airline personnel.”
  • “Airports are responsible for ensuring compliance of facilities that they own, operate, or lease to other parties, including airlines. Airlines must ensure an accessible route between the gate and the aircraft boarding location.”
  • “Airlines, in cooperation with airport operators, must also provide service animal relief areas at the airport.”
  • “Airlines must allow assistive devices as carry-ons in the cabin free of charge consistent with safety rules. . . . Assistive devices must not count against the passenger’s carry-on limit.”
  • “Airlines must provide specific seats to the following passengers who identify to airline personnel as needing the seat, if the seat exists on the same class of service on the aircraft
    • Movable Aisle Armrest–When the passenger uses an aisle chair to board and cannot transfer readily over a fixed aisle armrest.
    • Bulkhead Seat or Other Seat–When the passenger travels with a service animal that is best accommodated at a particular seat.
    • Greater Leg Room–When the passenger has a fused or immobilized leg.
    • Adjoining Seat–For a companion providing a certain type of assistance”
  • “Once a passenger with a disability has boarded, airlines must provide assistance, if requested, such as:
    • moving to or from the lavatory, including using an on-board chair to assist, if requested.
    • stowing and retrieving carry-on items, including assistive devices.”
  • New aircraft delivered to U.S. airlines after April 1992 and to foreign airlines after May 2010 must have accessible features that include:
    • Movable aisle armrests on half of the aisle seats, if the aircraft has 30 or more seats.
    • At least one accessible lavatory, if the aircraft has more than one aisle.”
  • “Airlines must make available a Complaint Resolution Official (CRO) in a timely manner, this may be by phone”

Process for Filing a Disability-Related Complaint

Form for Filing a Disability-Related Complaint

You can file a complaint with the DOT if you feel that your rights have been violated (e.g., made to wait too long to deplane, wheelchair not brought to jet way, denied seating accommodations) and the airline has not rectified the situation. The best practice is to submit your complaint within 45 days of flying, and no later than 6 months after flying–the DOT may not refer claims filed after 6 months to the airline for investigation and resolution.

You would not be alone or an outlier for doing so–as noted above, tens of thousands of passengers file similar disability-related complaints every year. In fact, filing a disability-related complaint to the federal government helps the DOT understand what issues people with disabilities are encountering, if particular airlines are repeatedly out of compliance, and to help guide future negotiated rulemaking to make air travel more accessible.

The complaint form asks for your basic contact information, your flight details, and then provides a portion for you to provide a written narrative of your complaint. You can also upload a photograph or document to corroborate your complaint.

screenshot of form for filing disability-related complaint to federal government

Tip: I suggest choosing to receive a copy of the complaint via e-mail so you have a date-stamped written record of submitting the complaint and its contents (in case the complaint is lost/corrupted and needs to be re-submitted).

You can also call the DOT at (202) 366-2220 to discuss the complaint after the fact, or at the hotline number of 1-800-778-4838 to obtain real-time assistance.  The hotline will provide general information about the rights of air travelers with disabilities, respond to requests for printed consumer information, and assist air travelers with disabilities with time-sensitive disability-related issues.  The hours for the hotline are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Eastern time, Monday through Friday, except federal holidays.

But all complaints must be submitted in writing for them to be reviewed and processed. A written complaint can be submitted by using the e-form or by mailing a complaint to:

Office of Aviation Consumer Protection 
U.S. Department of Transportation
1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE
Washington, DC  20590

Process for Reviewing Disability-Related Complaints

Once there is a filing of a disability-related complaint to the federal government,

  • A Transportation Industry Analyst will forward the complaint to the airline, and the airline will be required to respond to the complainant and the DOT. 
  • Once the airline’s response is received, a DOT analyst will review the complaint and the airline’s response to determine if a violation occurred. 
  • After the analyst reviews the case, it will be given to an attorney for review. 
  • Once the case is reviewed by an attorney, an analysis with the DOT’s findings will be mailed to the complainant. This final review process can take a long time.  

Note: The airline may offer to resolve the dispute as part of its investigation, typically in the form of a voucher toward future air travel. I suggest paying particular attention to the expiration date of such a voucher, as well as whether it must be used all at once (i.e. use all of it or forfeit any remaining amount).

This complaint process is the federal government’s method of resolving complaints as part of its regulatory oversight of the airline industry. You should contact an attorney to discuss any other legal rights or remedies that may be available.

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