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73 FR 27614, May 13, 2008, as modified by Correction Notice of 74 FR 11469,

    March 18, 2009. This document includes the modifications from the Correction Notice.

DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION

14 CFR Part 382

[Dockets OST200419482; OST200522298; OST200623999]

[RINs 2105AC97; 2105AC29; 2105AD41]

Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Disability in Air Travel

AGENCY: Department of Transportation, Office of the Secretary

ACTION: Final Rule

    SUMMARY: The Department of Transportation is amending its Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) rules to apply to foreign carriers. The final rule also adds new provisions concerning passengers who use medical oxygen and passengers who are deaf or hard-of-hearing. The rule also reorganizes and updates the entire ACAA rule. The Department will respond to some matters raised in this rulemaking by issuing a subsequent supplemental notice of proposed rulemaking.

EFFECTIVE DATE: This rule is effective May 13, 2009.

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: Robert C. Ashby, Deputy Assistant

    General Counsel for Regulation and Enforcement, Department of Transportation, 1200 New Jersey Ave., SE, Room W94-302, Washington, D.C., 20590 (202) 366-9310 (voice); 202-366-7687 (TTY); bob.ashby@dot.gov. You may also contact Blane Workie,

    Aviation Civil Rights Compliance Branch, Office of the Assistant General Counsel for Aviation Enforcement and Proceedings, Department of Transportation, 1200 New Jersey Ave., SE, Room W98-310, Washington, D.C., 20590 (202) 366- 9345),

    blane.workie@dot.gov.

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    SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION:

    Background

    Congress enacted the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) in 1986. The statute prohibits discrimination in airline service on the basis of disability. Following a lengthy rulemaking process that included a regulatory negotiation involving representatives of the airline industry and disability community, the Department issued a final ACAA rule in 1March 1990. Since that time, the Department has amended the rule ten times. These

    amendments have concerned such subjects as boarding assistance via lift devices for small aircraft, and subsequently for other aircraft, where level entry boarding is unavailable; seating accommodations for passengers with disabilities; reimbursement for loss of or damage to wheelchairs; modifications to policies or practices necessary to ensure nondiscrimination; terminal accessibility standards; and technical changes to terminology and compliance dates.

     The Department has also frequently issued guidance that interprets or explains further the text of the rule. These interpretations have been disseminated in a variety of ways: preambles to regulatory amendments, industry letters, correspondence with individual carriers or complainants, enforcement actions, web site postings, informal conversations between DOT staff and interested members of the public, etc. This guidance, on a wide variety of subjects, has never been collected in one place. Some of this guidance would be more accessible to the public and more readily understandable if it were incorporated into regulatory text.

     There have also been changes in the ways airlines operate since the original publication of Part 382. For example, airlines now make extensive use of web sites for information and booking purposes. Preboarding announcements are not as universal as they once were. Many carriers now use regional jets for flights that formerly would have been served by larger aircraft. Security screening has become a responsibility of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), rather than that of the airlines. In this rulemaking, the Department is updating Part 382 to take these and other changes in airline operations into account.

    The over 17-year history of amendments and interpretations of Part 382 have made the rule something of a patchwork, which does not flow as clearly and understandably as it might. Restructuring the rule for greater clarity, including using ``plain language'' to the extent feasible, is an important objective. To this end, Part 382 has been restructured in this rule, to organize it by subject matter area. Compared to the present rule, the text is divided into more subparts and sections, with fewer paragraphs and less text in each on average, to make it easier to find regulatory provisions. The rule uses a question-answer format, with language specifically directing particular parties to

     1 The dates and citations for these amendments are the following: April 3, 1990, 55 FR 12336; June 11, 1990, 55 FR 23539; November 1, 1996, 61 FR 56409; January 2, 1997, 62 FR 16; March 4, 1998, 63 FR 10528; March 11, 1998, 63 FR 11954; August 2, 1999, 64 FR 41781; January 5, 2000, 65 FR 352; May 3, 2001, 66 FR 22107; July 8, 2003, 68 FR 40488.

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    take particular actions (e.g., ``As a carrier, you must * * *''). We have also tried to express the (admittedly sometimes technical) requirements of the rule in plain language.

    The Department recognizes that some users, who have become familiar and comfortable with the existing organization and numbering scheme of Part 382, might have to make some adjustments as they work with the restructured rule. However, the structure of this revision is consistent with a Federal government-wide effort to improve the clarity of regulations, which the Department has employed with great success and public acceptance in the case of other significant rules in recent years, such as revisions 2of our disadvantaged business enterprise and drug and alcohol testing procedures rules.

    Many of the provisions of the current Part 382 are retained in this rule with little or no substantive change. To assist users familiar with the current rule in finding material in the new version of the rule, we have included a cross-reference table in Appendix B to the final rule.

    In addition to this general revision and update, the Department in this rule is making important substantive changes to the rule in three areas: coverage of foreign carriers, accommodations for passengers who use oxygen and other respiratory assistive devices, and accommodation for deaf or hard-of-hearing passengers.

    The original 1986 ACAA covered only U.S. air carriers. However, on April 5, 2000, the Wendell H. Ford Aviation Investment and Reform Act for the 21st Century (AIR-21) amended the ACAA specifically to include foreign carriers. The ACAA now reads in relevant part:

     In providing air transportation, an air carrier, including (subject to [49 U.S.C.]

    section 40105(b)) any foreign air carrier, may not discriminate against an

    otherwise qualified individual on the following grounds:

     (1) The individual has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits

    one or more major life activities.

     (2) The individual has a record of such an impairment.

     (3) The individual is regarded as having such an impairment.

Section 40105(b) provides as follows:

    (b) Actions of Secretary and Administrator.

    (1) In carrying out this part, the Secretary of Transportation and the

    Administrator

     2 See 64 FR 5096, February 2, 1999 (for 49 CFR Part 26, disadvantaged business enterprise) and 65 FR 79462, December 19, 2000 (for 49 CFR Part 40, drug and alcohol testing procedures).

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    (A) shall act consistently with obligations of the United States Government under

    an international agreement;

    (B) shall consider applicable laws and requirements of a foreign country; and

    (C) may not limit compliance by an air carrier with obligations or liabilities

    imposed by the government of a foreign country when the Secretary takes any

    action related to a certificate of public convenience and necessity issued under

    chapter 411 of this title.

    (2) This subsection does not apply to an agreement between an air carrier or an

    officer or representative of an air carrier and the government of a foreign country,

    if the Secretary of Transportation disapproves the agreement because it is not in

    the public interest. Section 40106 (b)(2) of this title applies to this subsection.

    In response to the AIR-21 requirements, the Department on May 18, 2000, issued a notice of its intent to investigate complaints against foreign carriers according to the amended provisions of the ACAA. The notice also announced the Department's plan to initiate a rulemaking modifying Part 382 to cover foreign carriers. On November 4, 2004, the Department issued a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) to apply the ACAA rule to foreign carriers (69 FR 64364). The NPRM sought to apply Part 382 to foreign carriers in a way that achieves the ACAA's nondiscrimination objectives while not imposing undue burdens on foreign carriers. This NPRM also proposed revisions to a number of other provisions of 14 CFR Part 382 and generally reorganized the rule. The Department received about 1300 comments on this NPRM. In this preamble to the final rule, this proposed rule is called the ―Foreign Carriers NPRM‖ or the ―2004 NPRM.‖

     On September 7, 2005, the Department published a second NPRM, on the subject of medical oxygen and portable respiratory assistive devices (70 FR 53108). The Department received over 1800 comments on this proposed rule, which is referred to in this preamble as the ―Oxygen NPRM.‖ On February 23, 2006, the Department published a third NPRM, concerning accommodations for passengers who are deaf, hard-of-hearing, or deaf-blind. The Department received over 700 comments on this proposed rule, which is called the deaf and hard-of-hearing (DHH) NPRM in this preamble. This document addresses the over 3800 comments received on all three NPRMs. The section-by-section analysis will describe each provision of the combined final rule.

     In this preamble, when we mention the ―present,‖ ―current,‖ or ―existing‖ rule, we mean the version of Part 382 that is in effect now. It will remain in effect until a year from today, when it will be replaced by the provisions that are published in this final rule.

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    COMMENTS AND RESPONSES

    General Regulatory Approach

     A number of airline industry commenters-- principally, but not only, foreign carriers -- criticized the Foreign Carriers NPRM’s approach as being too detailed and

    prescriptive. Many of these commenters said they preferred a more general approach, in which an overall objective of nondiscrimination and service to persons with disabilities was stated, with the details of implementation left to the discretion of carrier policies, guided by codes of recommended practice issued by various governments or international organizations.

     It is the Department’s experience, over the 21 years since the enactment of the Air Carrier Access Act, that in order to ensure that carriers are accountable for providing nondiscriminatory service to passengers with disabilities, detailed standards and requirements are essential. If all that carriers are responsible for is carrying out, in their best judgment, general objectives of nondiscrimination and good service, or best practices or recommendations, or regulations that are not enforceable by the Department, then effective enforcement of the rights Congress intended to protect in the ACAA becomes impracticable. It is understandable that carriers would wish to implement their goals through policies of their own devising and to limit potential compliance issues. However, the Department is responsible for ensuring consistent nondiscriminatory treatment of passengers with disabilities, including implementation of the variety of specific accommodations that are essential in providing such treatment. We must structure our response to this mandate in a way that allows for clear and consistent implementation by the carriers, and clear and consistent enforcement by the Department. Consequently, we are convinced that the approach taken in the NPRM, reflecting the Department’s years of successful experience in carrying out the ACAA, is appropriate.

Coverage and Definition of “Flight”

     The Foreign Carriers NPRM proposed to cover the activities of foreign carriers with respect to a ―flight,‖ defined as a continuous journey, in the same aircraft or using

    the same flight number that begins or ends at a U.S. airport. The Foreign Carriers NPRM included several examples of what would or would not be considered covered ―flights.‖ One of these examples proposed that if a passenger books a journey on a foreign carrier from New York to Cairo, with a change of plane or flight number in London, the entire flight would be covered for that passenger. When there is a change in both aircraft and flight number at a foreign airport, the rule would not apply beyond that point. Another example proposed that the rules applying to U.S. carriers would apply to a flight operated by a foreign carrier between foreign points that was also listed as a flight of a U.S. carrier via a code sharing arrangement.

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    Commenters, including foreign carriers, generally conceded that it was acceptable for the rule to cover foreign carriers’ flights that started or ended at a U.S. airport. Some carriers said that it was burdensome for them to continue to observe Part 382 rules for a leg of a flight that did not itself touch the U.S. (e.g., the London-Cairo leg in the example mentioned above). We note that only service and nondiscrimination provisions of the rule apply in such a situation, not aircraft accessibility requirements.

    Foreign carriers’ main objection, however, centered on codeshare flights between two foreign points. They said that it was an inappropriate extraterritorial extension of U.S. jurisdiction to apply U.S. rules to a foreign carrier just because the foreign carrier’s flight between two foreign points carried passengers under a code-sharing arrangement with a U.S. carrier. In response to these comments, the Department has changed the applicable provision of the final rule. If a foreign carrier operates a flight between two non-U.S. points and the flight carries the code of a U.S. carrier, the final rule will not extend coverage to the foreign carrier for that flight segment and the foreign carrier will not be responsible to the Department for compliance with Part 382 for that segment. Rather, with respect to passengers ticketed to travel under the U.S. carrier’s code, the

    Department regards the transportation of those passengers to be transportation by a U.S. carrier, concerning which the U.S. carrier is responsible for Part 382 compliance. If there is a service-related violation of Part 382 on a flight between two non-U.S. points operated by a foreign carrier, affecting a passenger traveling under the U.S. carrier’s code, the violation would be attributed to the U.S. carrier, and any enforcement action taken by the Department would be against the U.S. carrier. We note that the aircraft accessibility requirements would not apply in such a situation. U.S. carriers can work with their foreign carrier codeshare partners to ensure that required services are provided to passengers.

Conflict of Law Waivers and Equivalent Alternative Determinations

     One of the most frequent comments made by foreign carriers and their

    organizations was that implementation of the proposed rules would lead to conflicts between Part 382 and foreign laws, rules, voluntary codes of practice, and carrier policies. These conflicts, commenters said, would lead to confusion and reduce efficiency in service to passengers with disabilities. Many commenters advocated that the Department should defer to foreign laws, rules, and guidance, or accept them as equivalent for purposes of compliance with Part 382.

     In anticipation of this concern, and in keeping with the Department’s obligation and commitment to giving due consideration to foreign law where it applies, the Foreign Carriers NPRM proposed a conflict of laws waiver mechanism. Under the proposal, a foreign carrier would be required to comply with Part 382, but could apply to DOT for a waiver if a foreign legal requirement conflicted with a given provision of the rule. If DOT agreed that there was a conflict, then the carrier could continue to follow the binding foreign legal requirement, rather than the conflicting provision of Part 382. Foreign carriers commented that this provision was unfair, because it would force them to begin complying with a Part 382 requirement allegedly in conflict with a foreign legal

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    requirement while the application for a waiver was pending. Some commenters also objected to DOT making a determination concerning whether there really was a conflict between DOT regulations and a provision of foreign law.

     In order to determine whether a foreign carrier should be excused from complying with an otherwise applicable provision of Part 382, the Department has no reasonable alternative to deciding whether a conflict with a foreign legal requirement exists. The Department cannot rely solely on an assertion by a foreign carrier that such a conflict exists.

    Comments from a number of foreign carriers asked the Department to broaden the concept of the proposed waiver, by allowing foreign carriers to comply with recommendations, voluntary codes of practice, etc. We do not believe such a broadening is necessary to comply with the Department’s legal obligations. Nor would it be advisable from a policy point of view, as it would not provide the consistency that passengers with disabilities should expect, regardless of the identity or nationality of the carrier they choose.

    We therefore want to make clear, for purposes of this waiver provision, what we mean by a conflict with a provision of foreign law. By foreign law, we mean a legally binding mandate (e.g., a statute, regulation, a safety rule equivalent to an FAA regulation) that imposes a nondiscretionary obligation on the foreign carrier to take, or refrain from taking, a certain action. Binding mandates frequently can subject a carrier to penalties imposed by a government in the event of noncompliance. Guidance, recommendations, codes of best practice, policies of carriers or carrier organizations, and other materials that do not have mandatory, binding legal effect on a carrier cannot give rise to a conflict between Part 382 and foreign law for purposes of this Part, even if they are published or endorsed by a foreign government. In order to create a conflict, the foreign legal mandate must require legally something that Part 382 prohibits, or prohibit something that Part 382 requires. A foreign law or regulation that merely authorizes carriers to adopt a certain policy, or gives carriers discretion in a certain area that Part 382 addresses, does not create a conflict cognizable under the conflict of laws waiver provision.

    For example, Part 382 says that carriers are prohibited from imposing number limits on passengers with disabilities. Suppose that Country S has a statute, or the equivalent of an FAA regulation, mandating that no more than three wheelchair users can, under any circumstances, travel on an S Airlines flight. S Airlines would have no discretion in the matter, since it was subject to a legal mandate of its government. This would create a conflict between Part 382 and the laws of Country S that could be the subject of a conflict of laws waiver. However, suppose that the government of Country S publishes a guidance document that says limiting wheelchair users on a flight to three is a good idea, has a regulation authorizing S Airlines to impose a number limit if it chooses, or approves an S Airlines safety program that includes a number limit. In these cases, the conflict of laws waiver would not apply, since in each case there is not a binding government requirement for a number limit, and S Airlines has the discretion whether or not to adopt one.

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    We note one exception to this point. If a foreign government officially informs a carrier that it intends to take enforcement action (e.g., impose a civil penalty) against a carrier for failing to implement a provision of a government policy, guidance document, or recommendation that conflicts with a portion of the Department’s rules, the Department would view the government action as creating a legal mandate cognizable under this section.

    While retaining the substance of the conflict of laws provision of the NPRM, the Department has, in response to comments, modified the process for considering waiver requests.. We agree with commenters that it would be unfair to insist that carriers comply with a Part 382 provision that allegedly conflicts with foreign law while a waiver request is pending. Consequently, we have established an effective date for the rule of one year after its publication date. We strongly encourage carriers, even where a provision of Part 382 itself explicitly allows an exception in order to comply with a foreign law (i.e., section 382.87(a)), to consider filing a conflict of law waiver request as outlined in section 382.9(a) whenever a carrier believes itself bound by a legal mandate that requires something Part 382 prohibits or prohibits something Part 382 requires. If a carrier sends in a waiver request within 120 days of the publication date of the final rule, the Department will, to the maximum extent feasible, respond before the effective date of the rule. If we are unable to do so, the carrier can keep implementing the policy or practice that is the subject of the request until we do respond, without becoming subject to enforcement action by the Department. The purpose of the 120-day provision is to provide an incentive to foreign carriers to conduct a due diligence review of foreign legal requirements that may conflict with Part 382 and make any waiver requests to DOT promptly, so that the Department can resolve the issues before the rule takes effect.

    What a foreign carrier obtains by filing all its conflict of laws waiver requests within the first 120 days is, in effect, a commitment from DOT not to take enforcement action related to implementing the foreign law in question pending DOT’s response to the waiver request. For example, if S Airlines filed a waiver request with respect to an alleged requirement of a Country S law requiring number limits for disabled passengers within 120 days of the rule’s publication, then the Department would not commence an enforcement action relating to an alleged violation of Part 382’s prohibition of number limits that occurred during the interval between the effective date of Part 382 and the date on which DOT responds to S Airline’s waiver request. This would be true even if the

    Department later denies the request.

    However, if S Airlines did not file its request until 180 or 210 days after the rule is published, DOT could begin enforcement action against the carrier for implementing number limits inconsistent with Part 382 during the period between the effective date of the rule and the Department’s response to the waiver request. If the Department granted

    the waiver request, any enforcement action relating to the carrier’s actions during that interval would probably be dismissed. However, if the waiver request were denied, the enforcement action would proceed. S Airlines thus would have put itself at somewhat greater risk by failing to submit its waiver request on a timely basis.

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    We also recognize that laws change. Consequently, if a new provision of foreign law comes into effect after the 120-day period, a carrier may file a waiver request with the Department. The carrier may keep the policy or practice that is the subject of the request in effect pending the Department’s response, which we will try to provide within 180 days. Again, the carrier would not be at risk of a DOT enforcement action relating to the period during which the Department was considering the waiver request concerning the new foreign law.

    Carriers should not file frivolous waiver requests, the stated basis for which is clearly lacking in merit or which are filed with the apparent intent of delaying implementation of a provision of Part 382 or abusing the waiver process. In such cases, the Department may pursue enforcement action even if the frivolous waiver request has been filed within 120 days. As a general matter, a carrier that does not file a request for a waiver, or whose request is denied, cannot then raise the alleged existence of a conflict with foreign law as a defense to a DOT enforcement action.

     Many foreign carriers and their organizations also said that a conflict of laws waiver, standing alone, was insufficient. They said that their policies and approaches to assisting passengers with disabilities, or laws or policies relating to disability access of foreign carriers’ countries (either single-country laws or those of, for example, the

    European Union) should be recognized as equivalent to DOT’s rules. Compliance with equivalent foreign laws and carrier policies, they said, should be sufficient to comply with Part 382.

     U.S. disability law includes a concept equivalent facilitation -- that can address

    these comments to a reasonable degree. This concept, which is embodied in such sources as the Department’s Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) regulations and the Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG), states that a transportation or other service provider can use a different accommodation in place of one required by regulation if the different accommodation provides substantially equivalent accessibility. The final rule permits U.S. and foreign carriers to apply to the Department for a determination of what the final rule will call an ―equivalent alternative.‖ (We use this term is used in place of ―equivalent facilitation‖ to avoid any possible confusion with the use of ―equivalent facilitation‖ in other contexts.). If, with respect to

    a specific accommodation, the carrier demonstrates that what it wants to do will provide substantially equivalent accessibility to passengers with disabilities than literal compliance with a particular provision of the rule, the Department will determine that the carrier can comply with the rule using its alternative accommodation. This provision applies to equipment, policies, procedures, or any other method of complying with Part 382

     It should be emphasized that equivalent alternative determinations concern alternatives only to specific requirements of Part 382. The Department will not entertain an equivalent alternative request relating to an entire regulatory scheme (e.g., an application asserting that compliance with European Union regulations on services to passengers with disabilities was equivalent to Part 382 as a whole). It should be emphasized that the fact that a carrier policy or foreign regulation addresses the same

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    subject as a provision of Part 382 does not mean the carrier policy or foreign regulation is an equivalent alternative. For example, both Part 382 and various carrier policies address the transportation of service animals. A policy or regulation that was more restrictive than Part 382 would not be viewed as an equivalent alternative, since it provided less, rather than substantially equivalent, accessibility for passengers who use service animals.

     As with the conflict of laws waiver, if a carrier submits a request for an equivalent alternative determination within 120 days of the publication of this Part, the Department will endeavor to have a response to the carrier by the effective date of the rule. If the Department has not responded by that time, the carrier can implement its proposed equivalent alternative until and unless the Department disapproves it. However, with respect to a request filed subsequent to that date, carriers must begin complying with the Part 382 provision when it becomes effective, and could not use their proposed equivalent alternative until and unless the Department approved it.

Other International Law Issues

     A number of foreign carriers said that application of the rule alike to U.S. and foreign carriers was unfair, in that U.S. carriers receive Federal funds to support their operations, while European and other foreign carriers do not. Commenters also argued that it was unfair for DOT to allow U.S. carriers to avoid civil penalties if they have introduced programs that go beyond minimum requirements.

     The Department disagrees with both these comments. The very reason for the existence of the ACAA is that the Supreme Court, in Paralyzed Veterans of America v.

    Civil Aeronautics Board, 477 U.S. 597 (1986), determined that, with minor exceptions

    not germane to the issue raised by commenters, U.S. carriers do not receive Federal

    financial assistance. For this reason, the Court said, section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 which applies only to entities receiving Federal financial assistance largely

    does not cover U.S. air carriers. Congress then enacted the ACAA to ensure that U.S. air carriers provided nondiscriminatory service to passengers with disabilities, notwithstanding the absence of Federal financial assistance. The situation that the Court saw in 1986 remains: U.S. carriers engaging in international transportation do not receive Federal financial assistance.

     The second of these comments appears to be a somewhat inaccurate reflection of a DOT enforcement policy that, in some cases, allows a carrier to invest part of a civil penalty to improve services for passengers with disabilities above and beyond what the ACAA requires, rather than paying the amount of this investment to the Department. For example, if a carrier were assessed a $1.5 million civil penalty for failure to provide timely and adequate assistance to passengers who use wheelchairs, the Department’s Office of Aviation Enforcement and Proceedings might require a cash payment of only $200,000 if the carrier agreed to use the remaining $1.3 million to enhance accessibility for passengers with mobility impairments in ways that go beyond the requirements of Part 382. Since this enforcement approach applies equally to foreign and U.S. carriers,

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