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The Transportation Department proposes new rules for how airlines handle wheelchairs

Passengers wait in line at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport on October 11, 2021 in Virginia.
Alex Wong
Getty Images
Passengers wait in line at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport on October 11, 2021 in Virginia.

Updated February 29, 2024 at 5:11 PM ET

WASHINGTON — For people who use wheelchairs, air travel can be a nightmare. There are countless stories of wheelchairs damaged, delayed and even destroyed.

Now the Biden administration is trying to change that by proposing new standards for how airlines must accommodate passengers with disabilities.

"Transportation is still inaccessible for far too many people, and that's certainly true for aviation," Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a call with reporters. "This is about making sure that all Americans can travel safely and with dignity."

The Department of Transportation invited dozens of other disability advocates to Washington on Thursday to talk about the proposed regulation. It would make mishandling of wheelchairs an automatic violation of the Air Carrier Access Act — making it easier to hold airlines accountable when they damage or delay the return of a wheelchair, Buttigieg said.

When airlines break a wheelchair or other mobility device, disability advocates argue, it's not like any other piece of luggage.

"People don't realize that this is a part of my body. If this is broken, you've broken my legs," said Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth, who lost both of her legs in the Iraq war. Duckworth has pushed to require airlines to disclose how many wheelchairs they damage. She says they broke 892 wheelchairs in a single month last year.

"Imagine if the American public saw that the airlines broke 892 pairs of legs in a single month. There would be hue and cry, but there hasn't been," she said.

The proposed rule would mandate that airlines provide more training for employees and contractors who physically assist passengers with disabilities and handle passengers' wheelchairs and other mobility devices.

DOT advisor Kelly Buckland, who also uses a wheelchair, says that training is key to protecting wheelchairs — and preventing injuries to disabled passengers.

"I think a lot of the general public is aware about the damage to our equipment. But I don't think there's as much awareness around how we get harmed," Buckland said.

The proposed rule includes hefty fines of more than $100,000 per incident. The major airlines have not said anything publicly about that. Their trade group Airlines For America said in a statement that carriers are "committed to offering a high level of customer service and providing a positive and safe flight experience for passengers with disabilities."

The immediate reaction from disability advocates was largely positive, though some expressed disappointment about what the proposed rule leaves out.

"The reason I didn't fly any more and I gave up flying was too much damage to my chair," said Theo Braddy, the executive director of the National Council on Independent Living.

Braddy says not flying has held him back in his career, and stopped him from traveling with his wife. But he says the DOT's proposal is changing his idea of what's possible.

"I didn't think this kind of stuff would happen in my lifetime. I thought that was okay, though, because the next generation would benefit," Braddy said. "I'm realizing maybe I will see it in my lifetime."

Flying is "by far the part of traveling that I dread the most," said Cory Lee, who writes a blog about accessible travel called Curb Free With Cory Lee. Lee says his powered wheelchair weighs about 400 pounds, and estimates that it's damaged in some way about half of the times he flies.

"Air travel is what needs the most help in the travel industry to become more inclusive and accessible. And any step toward getting better is important," Lee said in an interview.

But Lee and other wheelchair users had been hoping for more.

"The rule certainly is doing something, but I don't know if it's doing enough," said Emily Ladau, a disability rights activist and author of the book Demystifying Disability.

Under the rule, airlines would be required to provide "prompt assistance" to passengers with disabilities when boarding and deplaning. Ladau says she wants more clarity about how that is defined.

"I can't tell you how many times I have sat on the plane waiting for sometimes close to an hour, if not more, just to have my wheelchair returned to me," Ladau said. "And occasionally have found that my wheelchair was not returned to me promptly because it was damaged."

The proposed rule does not include what Lee called his "ultimate dream" tostay in his own wheelchair on a plane.

"That is the Holy Grail, and we are working toward it," Buttigieg said, while acknowledging that allowing passengers to stay in their wheelchairs on the plane will be "very challenging" from a safety and engineering perspective.

For now, the DOT has more work to do before these proposed rules get off the ground. The public has 60 days to comment.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.