DOT proposes sweeping rules for how airlines handle passengers’ wheelchairs

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The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) proposed new rules Thursday surrounding how airlines transport wheelchairs and accommodate passengers who rely on them.

The proposed rules, which the DOT characterized as “the largest expansion of rights for airline passengers who use wheelchairs since 2008,” would sharply penalize airlines for mishandling passengers’ wheelchairs while imposing new training and operating standards for carriers.

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“The basic promise of transportation is the idea that everyone should be able to travel safely and freely to the places that they need to be,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said on Wednesday during a conference call with media ahead of the announcement. “If a person is not able to travel, simply because someone else decides that it’s too hard to accommodate them, the world shrinks.”

“Despite real progress, transportation is still inaccessible for far too many people,” Buttigieg added.

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. Buttigieg said the violation would entail a fine potentially over $120,000 per incident.

Along with requiring airlines to repair or replace damaged wheelchairs and provide adequate loaners during delays — enhancing existing regulations — the new rule would mandate new annual training for airline employees and contractors who typically assist passengers or handle wheelchairs.

While most wheelchairs arrive at their destination safely — in 2022, the last full year for which data are available, 741,582 wheelchairs were carried by the 10 biggest airlines, while 11,389, or 1.5 percent, were damaged, lost or significantly delayed — any mishandling can have severe consequences for passengers, particularly those who use customized or more advanced wheelchairs.

In late 2021, Engracia Figueroa, 51, a disability advocate, died several months after a United Airlines flight on which airline workers accidentally damaged her $30,000 custom wheelchair. While sitting in a loaner wheelchair at the airport — a broken manual wheelchair — she allegedly developed a pressure sore, which her family argues led to complications that ultimately resulted in her hospitalization and death.

United has since added several new features aimed at improving the travel experience for wheelchair users, and the DOT has proposed several rules surrounding wheelchair accommodation.

Still, it remains an ongoing problem. While data for 2023 are still being compiled, more than 11,000 wheelchairs were mishandled in the year, according to a senior Biden administration official.

The proposed new rule is open for public comment for 60 days, and could be revised based on feedback before being submitted for additional comment. There is no set timeline for the final rule’s implementation, and many proposed rules are never fully adopted, meaning that the new rules surrounding wheelchair transport may not actually come to fruition.

Buttigieg, however, said that he respects the rulemaking process but is eager to see action taken on this proposal — and suggested that he’s optimistic.

“Input during the comment period will be important to getting this proposed rule right, and getting it over the finish line,” Buttigieg said. “It’s an important part of how we change the way that airlines operate and change the way that travelers with disabilities can move around the country and around the world.”

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