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Tuesday, April 23, 2024

As Safety Declines, Buttigieg Warns Airlines over Wheelchair Damage

'They are not trying to damage wheelchairs, but we do need them to be more motivated to damage or mishandle fewer wheelchairs...'

(Headline USA) During a recent spate of airline catastrophes or mid-air near-catastrophes, former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg was nowhere to be found. 

Yet, after nary a word to address the growing issue of plane failures—which some attribute to the push to diversify flight crews and engineering staffs—the Biden administration’s Transportation secretary re-emerged Thursday, unveiling a plan to hold airlines accountable for damaging or losing wheelchairs.

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

The Transportation Department said 11,527 of the devices were mishandled by airlines last year, up from 10,337 in 2022.

The Biden administration planned to announce the proposal 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. 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, since 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, which are far too often sidetracked by things like preventing acts of terrorism or mechanical failures in the high-stress environment— needed 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.”

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.

Adapted from reporting by the Associated Press

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