Airlines could face more fines for damaging or misplacing wheelchairs

An airline employee transfers a wheelchair to her station at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago, Nov. 23, 2022.
An airline employee transfers a wheelchair to her station at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago, Nov. 23, 2022. Copyright Nam Y. Huh/Copyright 2022 The AP. All rights reserved.
By AP
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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.

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The US Transportation Department is also calling 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 growing problem. The Transportation Department said 11,527 of the devices were mishandled by airlines last year, up from 10,337 in 2022.

The administration plans to announce the proposed rule during a White House event that will include 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.”

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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