Updated as of January 28, 2024
Several laws protect our right to travel independently in airports and in airplanes. Let’s discuss air travel and examine the rights of disabled individuals with regard to independent mobility tools: both guide dogs and white canes. Note: this tip focuses on mobility tools and will not address issues regarding other matters (such as electronic equipment, baggage, medications, etc.).
Also, please note that, while there is a “TSA Disability Notification Card” you can complete and show to TSA officials, you have no duty to do so. You only need to state that you need your white cane or guide dog for independent mobility because of a disability you have. You are not required to disclose your medical diagnosis, and you cannot be forced to provide medical documentation.
The Takeoff Triathlon
When arriving at an airport for a flight, each of us must engage in the Takeoff Triathlon: completing three “events” to get through the airport and successfully buckle in for the flight. These events are: the TSA Triple Threat, Gate Sprints, and the Seat Selection Derby.
As with any sporting event, it is difficult to win if we don’t know the rules. Below, we describe each leg of the Takeoff Triathlon and offer information to help you conquer each contest no matter what obstacles crop up.
TSA Triple Jump
TSA stands for one of our favorite government agencies: the Transportation Security Administration, an agency under the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). TSA agents staff security checkpoints at most airports in the nation. While some airports (at last count, 22 of them) do employ private security forms for security screening through the TSA’s Screening Partnership Program, all must follow all TSA policies. Thus. We don’t need to worry about who is staffing a security checkpoint because all must adhere to the same rules. Additionally, as a government agency, the TSA must adhere to all anti-discrimination and civil rights laws, including allowing reasonable accommodations. If you encounter discrimination at a TSA checkpoint, you may talk with a supervisor at the checkpoint and/or make a formal complaint using the online TSA Complaint form.
The TSA Triple Jump involves: (1) locating the screening conveyor belt and TSA-provided trays for carry-on baggage, electronics, shoes, belts, etc., (2) undergoing screening with a mobility device, and (3) retrieving your screened items before leaving the security checkpoint.
1. Preparing items for screening
We can often hear the motor of the screening conveyor belt, but sometimes background noise and architectural design make echolocation difficult. You may always feel free to ask for assistance – as much or as little as you need. TSA officers must provide this assistance (as a reasonable accommodation). TSA officers can also help you find the bins for your items and can tell you what items need to be placed in bins. Please consider asking these federal employees for assistance rather than relying on strangers in line. Unfortunately, we can never be certain that a “helpful” fellow passenger is capable or honest. Yes, it’s a shame, but it’s the world we live in. TSA Civil Rights web page.
2. Screening of you (your body)
White canes must be x-rayed, but you do not need to move without your cane. If you wish to use your white cane as you pass through security, tell the security officer. Typically, the officer will ask you to stand at the entrance to the screener, take your cane, run it through the x-ray, and return your cane to you. At that point, you will go through the rest of the process with your cane by your side. Alternatively, the security officer might ask you to go through the screener and stop, wait for the cane to be x-rayed, and then returned to you. Either way, you always have the right to have your cane with you when you are moving, and you have the right to refuse other types of assistance, like human guide. TSA “Blind, Low Vision” guidance web page.
Similarly, both you and your guide dog go through security together (either the screening or pat-down). If additional screening is needed, you may not touch your guide dog, but you may hold it by its harness/leash. “TSA will not separate you from your service animal.” From TSA FAQ web page. Also, please note: “Service dog/animal collars, harnesses, leashes, backpacks, vests and other items are subject to security screening. Items that are necessary to maintain control of the service dog/animal or indicate that the service dog/animal is on duty do not require removal to be screened.” From TSA FAQ web page.
3. Leaving the screening area
Retrieving your item from the screening belt can be difficult because the bins and carry-on luggage come out in the same order they were put in, but the body screening order may be different. Additionally, if the TSA officer had to stop the belt to examine a particular bin or carry-on, several passengers may already be waiting for their items. TSA officer assistance may be very useful at this point, or you could use a visual interpretation app like Aira or Be My Eyes. If you do seek sighted assistance, make sure that you can describe your items (color size, etc.).
Once through the security checkpoint, you’ll travel to your gate. Airports are considered public places/accommodations, so you have the right to use your cane/guide dog as described in two Bridges Resource Library entries (Guide Dog User Rights in Public Places and White Canes User Rights).
You can find your assigned gate on your airline’s app – and this information is usually updated well. Otherwise, you can get gate information from your ticket or the Departures board – with or without assistance. Once you know your gate, head that way, and request directions if necessary.
While it is not required, please consider checking in with the agent at your gate. Doing so lets the individual know that you are at the gate and waiting to board. You may also ask the gate agent to: (1) let you know if there is a gate change and/or (2) request preboarding based on a disability.
Seat Selection Derby
In most areas of life in the U.S., the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) provides civil rights protections. However, on air flights, another federal law, the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) is in effect. For more information, check out the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT)’s “Passengers with Disabilities – 36th Anniversary of the Air Carrier Act web page. Another great resource is the USDOT Airline Passengers with Disabilities Bill of Rights.
If you believe that you have experienced discrimination, you have the right to make a complaint to the airline’s Complaint Resolution Official (CRO) at the airport, contacting the USDOT Aviation Consumer Protection Division’s Disability Hotline at 1-800-778-4838 (staffed from M-F, 9AM – 5PM, ET), and/or to file an online complaint to using the USDOT Air Travel Service Complaint or Comment Form (Not Related to Airline Safety or Security Issues).
If, at least 24 hours before your flight, you request disability-related seating from an airline that provides assigned seats for passengers must provide seating, the airline must meet that need. Many of these airlines also allow preboarding to allow disabled individuals less crowding and more time to settle into their seats.
Airlines that do not offer assigned seating usually offer preboarding for individuals with disabilities. Please note that you should indicate your desire to use preboarding services before boarding – and letting the gate agent know is a great way to do this.
White cane storage
An airline may not take your cane away from you on a flight. However, your cane must be stored in a manner consistent with the rules of the airline. For example, a cane may not roll around on the floor or impede the walkway. Many users of non-collapsible long white canes find that using a window seat will allow them to store the cane along the side of the place – just as they may do in a car. The key is this: you have the right to have your cane with you as long as you store it properly.
Unlike a public place, an airline MAY require you to provide a completed U.S. Department of Transportation Service Animal Air Transportation Form. Additionally, if your flight will last longer than eight hours, the airline may require you to provide a completed DOT Service Animal Relief Attestation Form.
The Ground Game
Upon arrival, we have another event to enjoy: the Ground Game, consisting of the airport Departure Dash, including luggage pick-up and getting to our next mode of transportation in Victory Lane.
As noted above, the airport is a public place under the ADA. Thus, you have the right to be free from disability-related discrimination, and you may request reasonable accommodations from airport staff (such as directions to baggage claim or other places).
- Before you leave, in each piece of checked luggage, pack a tracking device (such as an Apple Airtag, a Tile device, or others). Make sure that you install and can operate the associated app on your Smartphone. Then, at baggage claim, you’ll have information about where your luggage is. You may still need some assistance, but you will have more information about the location of your luggage. A search for “airtag” on the AppleVis website for feedback from blind individuals about the product.
- Know how to describe your luggage. Hundreds of bags come off most flights, so knowing what your bag looks like can help you describe your bag if using sighted assistance. Also, consider putting some kind of visual and tactile identification on your bag (bright-colored ribbons, duct tape, etc.) to help your bag stand out and to allow you to identify it tactually.
- Sighted assistance – there are several options:
- Visual interpretation apps like Be My Eyes or Aira (however, it may be tricky to use one of these apps at the same time you are using another app, such as a tracking advice app. Find out more in the Bridges Resources Library’s AIRA entry and the Be My Eyes entry.
- Live humans
- Fellow travelers are often happy to help, but, as noted above, some are not honest.
- Most baggage areas have porters, but they are working for tips. You can expect to pay for their assistance.
- Airport personnel are not working for tips, so it can be helpful to ask the individual before engaging them for assistance.
Victory Lane: finding transportation pick-up areas
Again, airports, including passenger pick-up areas, are public places and are subject to federal civil rights laws. However, passenger pick-up areas and policies can vary widely between airports, and an airport’s policies can change, especially if some areas are under construction.
Thus, we can ensure a successful end to the trip by planning for our travel away from the airport. Determine whether you will be picked up by a friend or family member or whether you want to use public transportation (bus or subway, if available), a shuttle service, a taxicab, or a ride-share service. Once you have decided, find out where the appropriate pick-up area is, and make your way there. If needed, check out the Guide Dog User Rights in Ride-shares and Cabs Bridges Resources Library entry.
For more information on these laws and the protections they provide, please contact the Free Bridges Helpdesk.
Contact the Bridges Helpdesk for More Information
- Our Accessible web form
- Email: Helpdesk@imagemd.org
- Text: Send to: (410) 357-1546
- Voice mail: Call (410) 357-1546, leave a voice mail message, and we will return your call
This unique project is being coordinated through The IMAGE Center of Maryland, a center for independent living in Towson, and it is funded by a grant from the Maryland Department of Education Division of Special Education/Early Intervention Services.