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Veterans group seeks court's help in making airplane bathrooms more accessible

By LORI ARATANI | The Washington Post | Published: December 1, 2018

A veterans group is turning to the courts for help in its efforts to make airplane bathrooms more accessible for travelers with disabilities.

Paralyzed Veterans of America filed a lawsuit Thursday in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit asking the court to force the Transportation Department to restart efforts to make bathrooms on single-aisle aircraft accessible to those with disabilities.

"Our suit is simply asking the [Transportation Department] to do what Congress directed them to do," said Karianne Jones, an attorney with the Democracy Forward Foundation, which is representing the veterans group.

After years of debate, advocates were heartened when, in 2016, a committee convened by the Transportation Department, reached a consensus on improving bathroom accessibility.

"The agreement . . . is an important step towards ensuring that air travelers with disabilities have equal access to air transportation," then-Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said. "It is unfair to expect individuals with limited mobility to refrain from using the restroom when they fly on single-aisle aircraft, particularly since single-aisle aircraft are increasingly used for longer flights."

Foxx announced a July 2017 deadline for moving the rule forward.

But the suit says not only has the department missed the deadline, but the agency has also signaled it will not follow the directive. The effort "ground to a halt when, in Spring 2018, the Department moved the Lavatory Accessibility Rule to its long-term agenda and thereafter removed it altogether, signifying that it has no plans to move forward on the rule anytime soon," the suit says.

The department did not respond to a request for comment on the delay or the suit. But the Trump administration previously announced it was halting new rulemaking.

Airplanes, unlike other modes of transportation, are not subject to accessibility rules spelled out in the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Instead, the industry follows rules specified in the Air Carrier Access Act, which was passed by Congress in 1986.

The law requires wide-body aircraft to be equipped with accessible bathrooms, but it does not require such accommodations on single-aisle aircraft, such as Boeing's 737, one of the most widely used commercial jetliners. Though there has been a sustained push for change, it has run into resistance from the airline industry, which says the move could have significant financial repercussions because installing larger bathrooms could mean a loss of seats or galley space.

In 2016, the Transportation Department formed a committee that included representatives from the airline industry, flight attendants, aircraft manufacturers as well as advocates for people with disabilities, to explore the bathroom question and other issues. Later that year, the group reached a consensus.

The committee agreed bathrooms should be made accessible but did not require current aircraft to be retrofitted. Instead, the group outlined short- and long-term strategies for reaching the goal of easier access.

Jones, who represents the veterans group, said the public often doesn't realize that flying poses special challenges for travelers with disabilities.

The department requires planes with 60 or more seats to provide a wheelchair for people with disabilities, as long as the airline has been given 48 hours' notice. The chairs are designed to help disabled passengers get to the bathroom door - but the chairs do not have to fit inside the lavatory. Because of that, many travelers with disabilities avoid using the bathrooms.

James Thomas Wheaton Jr. travels frequently for his job as national treasurer for Paralyzed Veterans of America. But flying fills him with dread, he said in a declaration included in the suit. The Navy veteran is paralyzed, and getting to the airplane bathroom is often an ordeal - so much so that he limits how much he eats and drinks on the day before the flight. He also wears protective undergarments on the plane.

The push for more accessible bathrooms comes at a time when personal space on airplanes is shrinking. Lavatories on some of the newer models of Boeing's 737 are now 24 inches wide, which can free up space for as many as six additional seats. Many airlines are also retrofitting older planes with the smaller lavatories in hopes of maximizing revenue.

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