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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 passengers with disabilities after years of complaints, including that wheelchairs are routinely broken on flights.

Proposed measures include that airlines promptly repair or replace damaged wheelchairs and provide comprehensive annual training to employees and contractors who work with travelers with disabilities and handle the devices they use.

“We’re really trying to get across that, just like a number of other passenger protections required by rule and law, taking care of wheelchairs and the passengers who use them is fundamental and necessary,” the Secretary of State said. Transportation Pete Buttigieg at a press conference. briefing with journalists. “And there are consequences for airlines that don’t do it.”

More and more wheelchairs are damaged on planes. Travelers want action

The regulations also aim to make mishandling wheelchairs and other assistive devices an automatic violation of the Air Carrier Access Act, a change that would make it easier for authorities to penalize and hold air carriers accountable when mobility devices are damaged or mishandled, Buttigieg said. Additionally, under the proposed rule, carriers would have to make loaner wheelchairs available when users’ devices are repaired or replaced.

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

According to the Department of Transportation, approximately 5.5 million Americans use wheelchairs, and many of them encounter obstacles when traveling by plane. Since 2018, air carriers have been required to report the number of mobility devices they have mishandled, damaged, delayed or destroyed. In 2022, more than 11,000 wheelchairs, electric 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 is taking include making billions of dollars available through various programs to improve accessibility at airports, train stations and subway stations, Buttigieg said. The administration also finalized a rule to make bathrooms on single-aisle planes accessible to people with disabilities.

“The fundamental promise of transportation is the idea that everyone should be able to travel safely and freely to the places they need to go,” Buttigieg said. “And if a person isn’t able to travel simply because someone else decides it’s too difficult to accommodate them, the world gets smaller for that traveler. This also diminishes for everyone who would benefit from that person’s presence in any setting, from a family gathering to a board meeting.

The announcement was welcomed by many disability advocates who have been fighting for better treatment of disabled passengers for years.

“Today’s proposed changes from the Department of Transportation include several critical steps that would significantly improve the air travel experience for people with disabilities,” said Heather Ansley, policy director of 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 by airlines. (Others) were seriously injured during the embarkation and disembarkation process. Enough is enough.”

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