US proposes new rules to make flights easier for wheelchair travelers

US proposes new rules to make flights easier for wheelchair travelers

The Biden administration announced Thursday that it is 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 passengers with disabilities or handle their wheelchairs.

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

For people in wheelchairs, flying can be difficult and uncomfortable, and plane accidents can make the experience even more distressing. More than 11,000 wheelchairs and scooters were mishandled by airlines last year, according to data reported to the Department of Transport.

The proposed regulations add to previous steps by the Biden administration aimed at improving the flying experience for travelers with disabilities. In 2022, the Ministry of Transport published a bill of rights for disabled air passengers. Last year, the agency finalized new regulations requiring more commercial planes to have accessible restrooms.

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 already fought unsuccessfully against a rule which required them to disclose the number of wheelchairs and scooters they mishandled. Duckworth said since airlines began reporting these numbers several years ago, she has noticed improvements at airports across the country.

Ms. Duckworth, the top Democrat on 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 steps to protect the policies the Biden administration is moving to implement.

“This rule could be rolled back by a future Department of Transportation under a different administration,” said Ms. Duckworth, who attended a White House event on Thursday at which Mr. 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 aimed at improving the process of boarding and disembarking passengers with disabilities, said he had never met a member of his organization who had flown and whose wheelchair had not been damaged at one point or another.

Mr Blake said the problem needed to be addressed urgently and he stressed the importance of using the new regulations to hold airlines accountable. “A rule that is not enforced is not a rule at all,” he said.

In a statement, a spokesperson for Airlines for America, a trade group representing the nation’s largest air carriers, said airlines have made strides to improve the flying experience for passengers with disabilities, including improving employee training.

“America’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 defendant Hannah Walden.

Public comments on the proposed regulations will be accepted for 60 days. The Ministry of Transport has not specified a timetable for finalizing the new measures.

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David B.Otero

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