Is Airline Preboarding Allowed for Chronic Pain or Anxiety, or Only More Visible Disabilities? TravelSort reader James writes “I've had chronic back pain for decades that's been getting worse. I also have anxiety, not about the flight per se, but some claustrophobia during really crowded boarding or deplaning situations. I avoid flying, but when I have to, I try to fly Economy Plus or Business even on shorter flights, in aisle seats, so that I can get up, change position, stretch, and manage the pain. I also don't move as quickly as others my age. On my most recent Delta flight, where I was in Economy Plus, I was about to put my roll aboard carry-on in the space above my seat, when a guy jostled me and got his carry-on into the space above my seat first. He wasn't even sitting in my row, he was two seats ahead of me. I complained to the guy and the flight attendant, but the guy was aggressive and the flight attendant didn't do anything, so my luggage had to be stored at the very back of the plane, resulting in my having to wait for everyone to deplane before I could retrieve my bag. This type of thing has happened before, and I'm wondering if I can pre-board, also because I can't move as quickly as other people. What are the pre-boarding rules for disabilities? Is it only for blind passengers or those in wheelchairs and similar, or also people like me?”
James has a great question. Pre-boarding can be a pretty divisive issue, up there with Kids in First Class, Emotional Support Animal Rules, reclining your seat (in Economy), and similar. As flights fly fuller and airlines have ramped up fees for checking bags, there's been more passenger pressure to try to board early, and in some cases that's resulted in people trying to game the system to pre-board.
That said, any pre-boarding needs to be based on an actual disability, it can't be just to stow luggage before others, as nearly everyone would like to do that. And sadly, you don't have a decreed right to the overhead bin space directly above your seat, even though that may only seem fair; after all, for economy, there are usually several passengers in that row.
But let's step back and look at the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) pre-boarding rule, which is found under 14 CFR 382.93. It instructs airlines: “As a carrier, you must offer preboarding to passengers with a disability who self-identify at the gate as needing time or assistance to board, stow accessibility equipment, or be seated.”
And in a May 29, 2013 notice, the DOT clarified that the obligation to preboard passengers with disabilities (bolding mine) “exists regardless of carriers' preboarding policies for other persons (e.g. families with small children) and that carriers are required to “board passengers with disabilities who self-identify at the gate as needing to preboard…to board the plane before all other passengers, including first class passengers, elite level passengers, members of the military, passengers with small children, etc.”
Based on James' account, he does appear to need additional time to board, so I would recommend he self-identify at the gate with his chronic pain disability and need to preboard. This could both help with his claustrophobia and anxiety, since it will before the bulk of the boarding, and give him the extra time he needs to get to his seat, hopefully with less chance of being jostled or shoved. It has the side benefit of also making it more likely that he'll be able to find overhead bin space near his seat.
File a DOT Complaint if You Have a Disability and Are Not Permitted to Preboard
All U.S. carriers and gate agents should aware of the preboarding rules, but if you have a disability such that you need extra time or assistance to board, have self-identified this need at the gate (ideally ~30 minutes or more before boarding) and are denied the opportunity to preboard (or preboarding occurs after other categories of passengers, such as elites or first class, when all passengers use a single jetway), file a DOT Complaint on the DOT site.
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