All the Ways Planes Will Become More Accessible…in the Next 12 Years

Braille signage and accessible lavatories are coming to an aircraft near you (eventually)

United will soon use Braille to indicate aisle and seat numbers
United will soon use Braille to indicate aisle and seat numbers
Wayne Slezak/United Airlines

For most able-bodied travelers, assuming they are not too tall or not too short, air travel is, at best, uncomfortable. For disabled travelers, however, it’s more like hell. This can be best summarized by one statistic: last year, the 10 largest U.S. airlines mishandled 11,389 wheelchairs or scooters, which far exceeds the number of checked bags that airlines mishandled during the same period.

That said, it looks like there are changes on the horizon…albeit the very distant horizon. To start, per a new report from CNN, on July 27 United Airlines announced that it will be putting Braille throughout its plane interiors in order to better support blind or visually disabled customers, making it the first U.S. airline to do so. It will be used to indicate aisle and seat numbers, as well as the location of lavatories.

“United is taking additional steps to create an accessible airline passenger experience through Braille signage,” ACB Interim Executive Director Dan Spoone said in a statement. “We appreciate the airline’s continued exploration of additional in-flight navigational aids like large print and tactile indicators, and we encourage all airlines to follow United’s lead in making air travel more inclusive for the blind and low vision community.”

Just days later, it was also announced that the Department of Transportation (DOT) would be implementing a new rule that will require airlines to make airplane bathrooms more accessible moving forward.

“Traveling can be stressful enough without worrying about being able to access a restroom; yet today, millions of wheelchair users are forced to choose between dehydrating themselves before boarding a plane or avoiding air travel altogether,” Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a statement. “We are proud to announce this rule that will make airplane bathrooms larger and more accessible, ensuring travelers in wheelchairs are afforded the same access and dignity as the rest of the traveling public.”  

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According to USA Today, the rule will involve accessibility features in lavatories including grab bars, accessible faucets and controls, accessible call buttons and door locks, minimum obstruction to the passage of an on-board wheelchair, toe clearance and an available visual barrier for privacy, and will extend to newly-delivered single-aisle airplanes starting in 2026. It will also extend to new single-aisle aircraft with 125 seats or more ordered starting in 2033 or delivered starting in 2035.

“These aircraft must have at least one lavatory of sufficient size to permit a passenger with a disability (with the help of an assistant, if necessary) to approach, enter, and maneuver within the aircraft lavatory, to use all lavatory facilities, and leave by means of the aircraft’s onboard wheelchair if necessary,” the DOT told USA Today.

For most — if not all — airlines, accessible lavatories will mean revamping entire fleets. To that end, a 2035 deadline makes sense. But the prevailing question is this: why did it have to take this long in the first place? It’s possible to roll out seat-back USB A and USB C charging ports faster than Braille signage? Disability advocacy organizations have been lobbying for more accessible aircraft for years.

It also bears mentioning that, while any progress on this particular front is indeed progress, both announcements were made just a few days shy of the conclusion of July — Disability Pride Month in the U.S. Coincidence? Maybe, but it still feels a little reminiscent of rainbow washing in June. And unfortunately the jury is still out on when and how airlines will tackle the mishandling of thousands of wheelchairs a year.


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