What many families don’t realize is that they have the power of a federal regulation on their sides: the Air Carrier Access Act. Passed by Congress, the Act requires the Department of Transportation (DOT) to ensure that "persons with disabilties will be treated without discrimination in a way consistent with the safe carriage of all passengers." In other words, the same policy that mandates that airlines and airports make air travel accessible to the physically disabled applies equally to those passengers with mental and cognitive impairments.
The Air Carrier Access Act states that air travel personnel who come into day-to-day contact with persons of disabilities are trained to understand their needs and how they can be accommodated quickly, safely and with dignity. Carriers must provide passage to an individual who has a disability that may affect his appearance or involuntary behavior, even if this disability may offend, annoy or be an inconvenience to crew members or other passengers.
Therefore, you and your child have just as much right to travel by air as anyone else, even if your child is not on his or her best behavior--as long as the behavior does not endanger the health and safety of other passengers or violate FAA safety rules.
That's not to say that the sky is the limit here. "The Act does require airlines to treat persons with a disability without discrimination," says Bill Mosley, spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Transportation. "But the Act does not address autism specifically. Carriers should accommodate as best as possible, but a lot is left to the carrier's discretion."
Preboarding and deplaning:
You can ask to preboard or deplane before or after other passengers. Whitney Eichinger, spokesperson, says Southwest Airlines issues a blue pass to passengers who need to preboard the plane.
Bryan Baldwin, coordinator, corporate communications for JetBlue Airways, says that while the airline offers preboarding, "As we fly single-aisle aircraft, advanced deplaning is generally not possible. Customers with disabilities are assisted once all the other customers have deplaned."
Airlines should comply with any seating requests you have. If getting to the bathroom is an issue, ask to sit in the back of the plane. If your child is sensitive to noise, request that you not be sitting over a wing. If you need extra legroom, ask for bulkhead seats. Keep in mind that you might not be able to book seats in exit rows, since passengers in these rows must be capable of operating the emergency exit and assisting in the event of an evacuation.
The Air Carrier Access Act stipulates that assistive devices, such as a communication board, not be considered part of the carry-on luggage allotment of two pieces per passenger. Northwest Airlines even extends this to portable DVD players, which "would be considered an assistive device if it relieves anxiety," says Stanik.
If you run out or need to conserve battery power, Eichinger says Southwest allows passengers to use outlets in the terminal, if available, as power sources for devices, and Kudwa says US Airways provides power sources on each aisle in the aircraft.
JetBlue is known for its personal TVs at every seat. "We are also in the process of adding Fox Inflight Premium Entertainment movie channels to our aircraft," says Baldwin.
If there is a meal served on board, you can request the meal be prepared a certain way, in case your child has food sensitivities or allergies.
At the airport:
You’ve alerted the reservations agent about your child’s needs. Don’t stop there. When you get to the airport, let the gate crew know as well. That goes double for the flight crew. "When the flight crew knows that there is a customer or family who may require special assistance on board, they are better able to meet both their safety and service needs," says King.
What if your flight is delayed or canceled, and you want to rebook? The Air Carrier Access Act does not require that airlines give priority to disabled passengers, but it can’t hurt to ask and push a little to be first in line. In the case of United Airlines, Arroyo says, "When there are irregular operations, we make every attempt to reaccommodate our customers with disabilities first."
Even though you've alerted every airline employee you've spoken to about your child's needs and have obtained the accommodations you requested, there's still a big question mark—the reactions and cooperation of other passengers.
You can certainly notify flight attendants if another passenger is being difficult. Another approach is to be open about the fact your child has autism and perhaps give others a mini lesson on the condition.
Cale says her grandson often travels wearing a shirt that reads: "I have sparkling eyes, a shining smile, and autism," and that this has helped promote understanding in fellow travelers. Other parents have business cards printed up that explain a little about autism. The cards can be handed out to onlookers who look confused or curious or who start to voice complaints about a child's behavior.If, despite your efforts, you feel the airline has not treated you fairly, file a complaint with the airline’s complaint resolution official (CRO). Federal law stipulates that the airline have a CRO available at each airport the carrier serves as well as provide customers with a telephone number to reach the CRO.