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U.S. Proposes New Plan to Protect Wheelchair Users While Traveling

Rule would require prompt action by airlines when wheelchair is damaged and improve training for workers

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A passenger is pushed through the terminal in a wheelchair at Albuquerque International Sunport in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The Department of Transportation issued a proposed rule Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024, to protect passengers who use wheelchairs while traveling.
Robert Alexander/Getty Image

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) on Thursday proposed a new rule designed to improve the flying experience for passengers who use wheelchairs.

The proposal requires that airlines that damage or delay the return of a wheelchair will be in violation of the Air Carrier Access Act and subject to a fine. According to a press release from the DOT, this rule would hold air carriers accountable when a device is damaged.

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In addition, the proposed rule requires stronger training for airline employees who handle wheelchairs or assist in the transfer of passengers from a wheelchair to an airplane seat. The training would be required annually.

During a town hall at the White House, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said, “Despite a lot of progress, transportation remains inaccessible for too many, and that is certainly true in aviation. I’ve heard so many stories from friends, from advocates, from many people in this room about … damage to wheelchairs, injuries to people’s dignity and sometimes injuries to people’s person as part of the travel experience.”

In addition, if a wheelchair is damaged, Buttigieg said airlines would be required to provide passengers the option to use their preferred vendor to repair or replace the wheelchair.

According to the DOT, 11,527 mobility devices were mishandled by air carriers in 2023. This is from data air carriers report to the agency.

“As someone who does travel with a wheelchair, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen my own assistive devices and others broken,” said Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., during the discussion at the White House. “And people don’t realize that this is a part of my body. If this is broken, you’ve broken my legs.”

Currently, passengers who use wheelchairs can’t use their own devices on planes. The passengers give up their assistive devices and are transferred to an airplane seat. Last year, Delta Air Lines unveiled a prototype for an in-flight docking system that would allow passengers to bring mechanized wheelchairs on airplanes and remain seated for the duration of a flight.

Before the proposal can become a rule, it must go through a public comment period of 60 days. DOT will review the input and either move forward with the process or modify the proposal. The DOT says the proposed rule “would represent the largest expansion of rights for airline passengers who use wheelchairs since 2008.”

In July, the agency finalized a rule to make airline lavatories accessible to people with disabilities.

“When somebody cannot travel because somebody else has decided that it’s too hard to accommodate them, the world shrinks,” Buttigieg said. He added that in addition to the world shrinking for the traveler, it shrinks for everybody else.

Contributing: Bill Fink, AARP.

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