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Passengers with Disabilities: Air Carriers' Disability-Training Programs and the Department of Transportation's Oversight

GAO-17-541R Published: May 31, 2017. Publicly Released: May 31, 2017.
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What GAO Found

GAO found that all 12 air carriers selected for review have training programs that address disability-related training requirements, with some variations in the specific content and format. Each air carrier demonstrated that it has in place initial and recurrent training for its employees, including its contractors, who interface with passengers with disabilities. All 12 air carriers also demonstrated that they have annual Complaint Resolution Officer training and annual recurrent training programs, both of which are Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) requirements. GAO's review revealed a few variations among air carriers' disability training programs and related efforts. For example, GAO found that some air carriers voluntarily implemented quality assurance programs to improve and sustain their disability training programs' performance. Another step some carriers have taken, though not required by the ACAA or its implementing regulations, is the creation of a disability board, which serves as a forum for increasing awareness among the workforce about disability issues.

GAO found that the Department of Transportation (DOT) uses a variety of oversight methods to ensure ACAA compliance by air carriers, including analyzing passenger complaint data, conducting compliance inspections, and pursuing enforcement actions. GAO also found that since 2008, DOT has pursued additional avenues for oversight; for example, adding visits to foreign air carriers and conducting airport inspections.

  • DOT analyzes passenger complaint data for trends and patterns and for potential egregious violations. For example, in 2015, of the total disability-related complaints submitted directly to DOT and to air carriers, the two largest complaint categories were "failure to provide assistance" for a wheelchair and "failure to provide" for other disability assistance.
  • DOT also conducts compliance reviews at air carrier headquarters for air traveler consumer issues, including disability-related issues. Since 2008, DOT has conducted 38 reviews at air carrier headquarters, resulting in 24 possible consumer violations, including 12 ACAA violations.
  • In 2015, DOT initiated consumer-related compliance reviews of air carriers, including ACAA compliance, at small, medium, and large hub airports. Since DOT started conducting inspections of air carriers at airports, DOT has conducted 108 reviews at 33 airports, which have resulted in DOT issuing 18 warning letters and the opening of 5 ACAA-related enforcement actions.

Why GAO Did This Study

According to the most recent census, 57 million Americans (roughly 1 in 5) have a disability, more than half of whom have mobility issues. Without effective accommodations--such as effective communication of flight information, accessible seats, appropriate boarding assistance, and careful handling and stowage of wheelchairs and other assistive devices--people with disabilities may face challenges when flying on a commercial air carrier. The ACAA, which was enacted in 1986, prohibits air carriers from discriminating against individuals on the basis of disability in the provision of air transportation. Subsequently, in 1990, the DOT promulgated the ACAA's implementing regulations, which require air carriers to provide disability training to their employees and contractor staff who deal with the traveling public. Additionally, the regulations require air carriers to respond to written ACAA-related complaints and annually report to DOT all such complaints received during the prior calendar year. Some disability rights advocates and other stakeholders, however, have raised questions about air carriers' compliance with the ACAA and its implementing regulations. In 2015, air carriers reported over 30,000 disability-related complaints to DOT's Office of Aviation Enforcement and Proceedings, which is responsible for oversight and enforcement of air carriers' compliance.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Extension, Safety, and Security Act of 2016 included a provision that GAO submit a report to Congress assessing required disability training programs for air carrier and contractor personnel. This report discusses: (1) how selected air carriers' disability training programs vary, if at all, in addressing federal requirements and (2) how DOT oversees air carrier compliance with the ACAA and what enforcement actions DOT has taken, including corrective actions sought, with regard to air carriers' training programs since 2005. GAO reviewed the training programs of 12 air carriers that account for nearly 75 percent of passenger enplanements in 2015; statutes and regulations, and analyzed DOT and air carrier complaint data; 51 ACAA related enforcement cases since 2005 of which 13 cases required training related corrective actions. GAO also met with five disability advocacy groups, two airline contractors and their employees; and the Federal Aviation Administration and Transportation Security Administration.

For more information, contact Gerald Dillingham, Ph. D. at 202-512-2834 or 

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Air transportationAir travelAirlinesAirport securityAirportsCommercial aviationCompliance oversightContractor personnelEmployee trainingAirline passengersPeople with disabilitiesTraining programsTraining utilizationCorrective actionConsumer complaints