Airlines could face more fines for mishandling wheelchairs under a Biden administration proposal


The Biden administration is proposing to make it easier for the government to fine airlines for damaging or misplacing wheelchairs by making it an automatic violation of a federal law on accessible air travel.

The U.S. Transportation Department also called Thursday for airlines to provide annual training for employees who handle wheelchairs or lift passengers with disabilities.

Damage to wheelchairs and scooters during air travel is a big problem. The Transportation Department said 11,527 of the devices were mishandled by airlines last year, up slightly from 2022.

The administration announced the proposed rule during a White House event that included advocates for people with disabilities.

There will be a 60-day period for public comment on the proposed rule. It’s not clear, however, when or if the proposal will ever become final. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg declined to provide a timetable when he briefed reporters.

Under the proposal, it would be easier for the Transportation Department to fine airlines up to roughly $125,000 if they damage a wheelchair or delay its return to the passenger at the end of a flight.

The proposal would give passengers the right to use their preferred vendor to repair or replace a damaged wheelchair — airlines are already required to cover the cost.

Buttigieg called the proposal the biggest expansion of rights for passengers who use a wheelchair since 2008. He said airlines need stronger financial incentives to treat disabled passengers with dignity.

The large number of damaged wheelchairs “reflects a culture where this is just treated as part of doing business,” he said. “There is going to be this risk that if something happens to your chair, and that’s too bad.”

Airlines for America, a trade group for the largest U.S. carriers, said airlines are working with the government and disability groups to reduce barriers to flying, said its member airlines have increased employee training, set up passenger-accessibility advisory groups and supported development of accessibility improvements since signing a commitment in October 2022.

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

The airline group didn’t comment on the administration’s specific proposals.

The Muscular Dystrophy Association, one of several disability-rights groups pushing for better treatment of disabled passengers, praised the proposal. Paul Melmeyer, the group’s vice president of public policy, highlighted provisions on training for airline workers, higher standards for on-board wheelchairs that passengers use to get to the lavatory, and placing the passenger’s personal wheelchair as close as possible to the aircraft door when they exit.

Melmeyer also endorsed the prospect of big fines for mishandling wheelchairs.

“We work with the airlines. They are not trying to damage wheelchairs, but we do need them to be more motivated to damage or mishandle fewer wheelchairs used by our community,” he said. “If higher fines or more frequent use of fines by the Department of Transportation will accomplish that goal, then we’re going to be supportive of that.”

Buttigieg conceded that the proposal will fall short of the ultimate goal of disability advocates — letting disabled passengers stay in their own wheelchair during flights, which would require modifications to aircraft cabins.

“The reality is that is going to take years,” he said.

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