DOT proposes sweeping rules for how airlines handle wheelchairs

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has proposed new rules surrounding how airlines transport wheelchairs and accommodate passengers who rely on them. These proposed rules are being characterized as the largest expansion of rights for airline passengers who use wheelchairs since 2008. The new rules aim to sharply penalize airlines for mishandling passengers’ wheelchairs while also imposing new training and operating standards for carriers.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg emphasized the importance of ensuring that everyone, regardless of their physical abilities, should be able to travel safely and freely to their desired destinations. He highlighted the fact that transportation is still inaccessible for many people, despite progress being made in recent years.

The proposed rule would consider any mishandling of a wheelchair by an airline as a violation of the Air Carrier Access Act, which prohibits airlines from discriminating against passengers because of a disability. Violations of this act could result in fines potentially exceeding $120,000 per incident. In addition to requiring airlines to repair or replace damaged wheelchairs and provide loaners during delays, the new rule would also mandate annual training for airline employees and contractors who assist passengers or handle wheelchairs.

While most wheelchairs arrive at their destination safely, data from 2022 indicate that 1.5% of wheelchairs carried by the 10 biggest airlines were damaged, lost, or significantly delayed. The mishandling of wheelchairs can have severe consequences for passengers, especially those who rely on customized or advanced wheelchairs.

One tragic example of the consequences of mishandling a wheelchair is the case of Engracia Figueroa, a disability advocate who died several months after a United Airlines flight where her custom wheelchair was accidentally damaged. Figueroa allegedly developed a pressure sore while using a broken manual wheelchair provided by the airline, leading to complications that ultimately resulted in her hospitalization and death.

In response to such incidents, United Airlines has implemented new features to improve the travel experience for wheelchair users, and the DOT has proposed several rules to enhance wheelchair accommodation. However, mishandling of wheelchairs continues to be a prevalent issue, with over 11,000 wheelchairs reportedly mishandled in 2023.

The proposed new rule is open for public comment for 60 days and could be revised based on feedback before being implemented. While there is no set timeline for the final rule’s implementation, Transportation Secretary Buttigieg expressed optimism and eagerness to see action taken on the proposal. He emphasized the importance of feedback during the comment period to ensure that the proposed rule is effective in changing the way airlines operate and improving the travel experience for passengers with disabilities.

In conclusion, the proposed rules surrounding wheelchair transport and accommodation represent a significant step towards ensuring that all passengers, regardless of their physical abilities, have equal access to safe and comfortable air travel. By holding airlines accountable for mishandling wheelchairs and implementing new training standards, these rules have the potential to greatly improve the travel experience for passengers who rely on wheelchairs. It is important for the public to provide feedback during the comment period to help shape the final rule and ensure that it effectively addresses the needs of passengers with disabilities.

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