Proposed rule aims to improve air travel for wheelchair users

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The Biden administration on Thursday proposed new rules aimed at improving the flying experience for disabled passengers after years of complaints, including that wheelchairs are routinely broken on flights.

The proposed measures include that airlines promptly repair or replace damaged wheelchairs and offer yearly comprehensive training for employees and contractors who work with disabled travelers and handle the devices they use.

“We’re really trying to make clear that just like a number of other passenger protections required by rule and by law, taking proper care of wheelchairs and the passengers to use them is fundamental and is required,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said during a briefing with reporters. “And there are consequences for airlines that don’t do that.”

More wheelchairs are being damaged on planes. Travelers want action

The rulemaking also seeks to make mishandling of wheelchairs and other assistive devices an automatic violation of the Air Carrier Access Act, a shift that would enable officials to more easily penalize and hold air carriers accountable when mobility devices are damaged or mishandled, Buttigieg said. In addition, under the proposed rule, carriers would have to make loaner wheelchairs available when users’ devices are being repaired or replaced.

“I know from personal experience that when an airline damages or breaks a wheelchair, it’s much more than a simple inconvenience — it’s the equivalent of breaking someone’s legs,” said Sen. Tammy Duckworth, (D-Ill.), who joined Buttigieg and other officials at the White House on Thursday for a discussion of the rule. “This proposed rule is critically important to helping ensure every passenger with a disability is treated with the dignity and respect all Americans deserve.”

According to the Transportation Department, an estimated 5.5 million Americans use a wheelchair, and many encounter barriers when traveling by air. Since 2018, air carriers have been required to report the number of mobility devices they’ve mishandled, damaged, delayed or destroyed. In 2022, more than 11,000 wheelchairs, power wheelchairs and scooters were lost, damaged, delayed or stolen. Those numbers are expected to be even higher for 2023, officials said.

The public will have 60 days to comment on the proposed rules — part of a push by the administration to improve the flying experience for everyone. Other steps the administration has taken include making billions of dollars available through various programs to improve accessibility at airports, rail and subway stations, Buttigieg said. The administration also finalized a rule to make bathrooms on single-aisle aircraft accessible to people with disabilities.

“The basic promise of transportation is the idea that everyone should be able to travel safely and freely to the places that they need to be,” Buttigieg said. “And if a person is not able to travel simply because someone else decides it’s too hard to accommodate them, the world shrinks for that traveler. It also shrinks for everyone else who would benefit from that person’s presence in any context, from a family gathering to a board meeting.”

The announcement was welcomed by many disability advocates who have fought for years for better treatment of passengers with disabilities.

“Today’s proposed changes by the Department of Transportation include several vital steps that would dramatically improve the air travel experience for people with disabilities,” said Heather Ansley, chief policy officer for Paralyzed Veterans of America. “Too many veterans with spinal cord injuries or diseases, like MS and ALS, have had their wheelchairs or other assistive devices damaged, lost, or destroyed at the hands of airlines. [Others] have been seriously injured during the boarding and deplaning process. Enough is enough.”

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