U.S. Proposes New Rules to Ease Flying for Travelers in Wheelchairs

The Biden administration announced Thursday that it was proposing new regulations on how airlines must treat passengers in wheelchairs, an effort aimed at improving air travel for people with disabilities.

Under the proposal, damaging or delaying the return of a wheelchair would be an automatic violation of an existing federal law that prohibits airlines from discriminating against people with disabilities. The Transportation Department said the change would make it easier for the agency to penalize airlines for mishandling wheelchairs.

The proposed regulations would also require more robust training for workers who physically assist disabled passengers or operate their wheelchairs.

“There are millions of Americans with disabilities who don’t travel by air due to poor airline practices and inadequate government regulation, but now we aim to change that,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a statement. “This new rule would change the way airlines operate to ensure that travelers who use wheelchairs can travel safely and with dignity.”

For people in wheelchairs, flying can be difficult and uncomfortable, and airline mishaps can make it an even more distressing experience. More than 11,000 wheelchairs and scooters were misused by airlines last year, according to data reported to the Department of Transportation.

The proposed regulations come on top of previous measures by the Biden administration aimed at improving the flying experience for disabled travelers. In 2022, the Department of Transportation published a Bill of rights for airline passengers with disabilities.. Last year, the agency finalized new regulations to require more commercial airliners to have accessible bathrooms.

Sen. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, a former Army helicopter pilot who uses a wheelchair after losing both legs in the Iraq War, noted that airlines had previously fought unsuccessfully against a rule requiring them to disclose the number of wheelchairs. wheels and scooters that handle poorly. Duckworth said that since airlines began reporting those numbers several years ago, she had noticed improvements at airports across the country.

Duckworth, a Democrat and chairwoman of the Senate Commerce Committee’s aviation subcommittee, said she hoped the proposed regulations would lead to a higher level of accountability for airlines. But she added that Congress should take action to protect the policies the Biden administration intends to implement.

“This rule could be repealed by a future Department of Transportation under a different administration,” said Duckworth, who attended an event at the White House on Thursday where Buttigieg discussed the new proposal.

At the event, Carl Blake, executive director of Paralyzed Veterans of America, which had asked the Department of Transportation to develop new regulations to improve the boarding and disembarking process for disabled passengers, said he had never met a member of his organization who flew and whose wheelchair had not been damaged at any time.

Blake said the issue needed to be addressed urgently and stressed the importance of using the new regulations to hold airlines accountable. “A rule that is not enforced is no rule at all,” he said.

In a statement, a spokeswoman for Airlines for America, a trade group representing the nation’s largest airlines, said airlines had been making strides to improve the flying experience for disabled passengers through measures such as improving training. of the employees.

“U.S. airlines are committed to providing a high level of customer service and providing a positive and safe flying experience for passengers with disabilities,” said spokeswoman Hannah Walden.

Public comments on the proposed regulations will be accepted for 60 days. The Transportation Department did not specify a timeline for when the new measures could be finalized.

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