Transportation

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Air Travel Guidelines

Travelers with epilepsy may have special concerns about traveling by air. Generally speaking, a person with epilepsy does not pose any greater safety risk on a plane than a passenger without epilepsy. There is also no medical evidence that air travel increases the risk of seizures or adversely affects people with epilepsy. On occasion, however, airline and airport personnel may try to prevent an individual with epilepsy from traveling. Federal laws grant travelers with disabilities legal rights to prevent this from happening unless there is a legitimate safety risk.

Your Legal Rights

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that airports and related facilities, such as parking lots and restaurants be accessible to people with disabilities (see our factsheet on the ADA and Public Accommodations). Airplanes are not, however, required to comply with the ADA. Instead, a federal law known as the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) applies.

The ACAA specifically prohibits the airline from refusing to allow someone to board because of his disability, or even asking whether an individual has a disability. Under the ACAA, a person is disabled if he or she has a physical or mental impairment that permanently or temporarily substantially limits one or more major life activities, has a record of such impairment, or is regarded as having such impairment. Under the law, the only time an airline can refuse to provide transportation is if the pilot reasonably believes, based on all the information known at the time, that the person's seizure disorder or other disability poses a real safety risk to himself or the other passengers and this risk cannot be eliminated by providing a reasonable accommodation. Nor can a pilot require the passenger to present a medical certificate from his physician certifying that it is medically safe for the individual to travel merely because of the individual's disability. Such a certificate can be required only if the passenger:

  • is on a stretcher or in an incubator (where such service is offered);
  • needs medical oxygen during flight (where such service is offered);
  • has a medical condition which causes the carrier to have reasonable doubt that the individual can complete the flight safely, without requiring extraordinary medical assistance during the flight; or
  • has a communicable disease or infection that has been determined by federal public health authorities to be generally transmittable during flight.

Notably, all commercial airlines that fly planes with more than 19 passengers to or from a destination within United States or its territories must comply with the ACAA.

Travel Tips

The ACAA also requires airlines to train their personnel how to appropriately treat people with disabilities and how to handle any kinds of emergencies that may arise, such as a seizure. There may, however, be times when airline personnel are unable to provide proper assistance either because they do not recognize that an individual is having a seizure or have not been properly trained in how to respond to a seizure. For this reason, it is helpful to wear a medical identification bracelet that indicates you have epilepsy.

If you are traveling with a companion, you should be sure he can recognize a seizure and administer proper first aid if the need arises. A companion can also explain your situation to the flight crew, which could prevent the pilot from landing the plane, as is the usual procedure in medical emergencies if there is no medical doctor on board that can certify that the flight can continue. You must carry your medication with you in its original container and in a separate clear plastic bag, rather than packing it, as well as a snack so that you can access it easily in case there is a long flight delay or your luggage is lost.

Some people with epilepsy have suggested that they find it helpful to sit in an aisle or a bulkhead seat since these seats have more space to move around in the event one has a seizure while on the plane. There is no medical evidence that a bulkhead or aisle seat is necessary just because one has a tendency to seizures, and you would need to show a need for that because of the specifics of your personal medical situation. Bulkhead seats would, however, be more convenient if you are traveling with a service animal.

If you think you need to request special seating because of your epilepsy or another medical condition, you should notify the airline at the time of reservation or at least 24 hours in advance of your flight. The ACAA requires that airlines grant these requests unless the person cannot comply with the FAA requirements for sitting in the exit row (that is, you must be physically and mentally able to open the door and get through the exit on your own) or the seat has already been assigned to another individual requiring special seating. If you give less than 24 hours notice, an airline is only required to comply with the request if it reasonably possible to do so.

People whose seizures typically include unusual behavior, such as walking, grabbing, or running while consciousness is impaired, and whose seizures are not well controlled, may wish to travel with a companion who could speak for them during a seizure to reassure others in the event of a seizure on the plane. Some people with epilepsy choose to describe their seizures in advance to airline personnel to prevent misunderstanding of possible behavior, although experience has also shown that sometimes airline personnel may refuse to allow the traveler on the plane. The added security now present at airports and aboard airplanes, including the presence of armed pilots and/or air marshals on planes, may create a need for a companion or an advance explanation to airline personnel for these individuals.

For more information about your rights as an air traveler with a disability, or to lodge a complaint, call 1-800-778-4838 (voice) or 1-800-455-9880 (TTY). You can also visit the Department of Transportation's (DOT) Aviation Consumer Protection Division website or visit the Federal Aviation Administration's website. For a question or complaint related to the airport security screening process, call the Transportation Security Administration's (TSA) Consumer Response Center at 1-877-336-4872, email or visit the TSA's website.