New Federal Rule Would Make Airlines Pay for Damaged Wheelchairs

The number of wheelchairs and assistive devices damaged by airlines has soared in recent years.

Airlines are notorious for mishandling wheelchairs and mistreating disabled passengers. A 2023 report from the Department of Transportation showed that disability-related complaints against airlines surged 200% since 2019. In an interview with Thrillist in January, US Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg said that passenger protections were going to be a top priority for the agency in 2024. Now, after extensive organizing from disability rights advocates, the DOT has proposed a new policy that will hold airlines more accountable when they fail to provide sufficient service to passengers with disabilities.

The rule would make it easier for DOT to "hold airlines accountable when they damage or delay the return of a wheelchair by making it an automatic violation of the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) to mishandle wheelchairs," according to a statement released Thursday by the agency.

The first component of the proposed rule would address airlines' failure to properly accommodate and respect passengers in wheelchairs in following ways:
1. Any mishandled (defined as: lost, delayed, damaged, or stolen) assistive devices such as wheelchairs would be an automatic violation of the ACAA. The airline would then be liable to be penalized by the DOT.
2. Airlines would be required to immediately notify the affected passenger of their right to:

  • File a claim with the airline
  • Receive a loner wheelchair from the airline
  • Choose a preferred vendor for device repairs or replacement and
  • Have a Complaints Resolution Officer available

3. Passengers would be provided with two options for damaged wheelchairs:

  • The airline pays for and handles the replacement or repair of the wheelchair within a reasonable timeframe, and is responsible for making sure the wheelchair is of an equal or greater function and safety.

OR

  • The passenger arranges for the replacement or repair of the wheelchair through their choice of vendor, and the airline pays for it.

4. The airline would be responsible for providing a loaner wheelchair to the passenger while the passenger is waiting for the completion of repair or replacement for their wheelchair. The airline will be required to consult with the passenger on the loaner to make sure it meets the needs of the passenger as much as possible.

The other two components of the new rule are "safe, dignified, and prompt assistance," and "improved standards on planes." These include provisions on improving airline employee training, the return of delayed wheelchairs to passengers within 24 hours by "whatever means possible," and notifications of when wheelchairs have been loaded and unloaded from cargo. You can read the complete details of the proposed rules at the Transportation.gov.

"When somebody cannot travel because somebody else has decided that it's too hard to accommodate them, the world shrinks," Buttigieg said during an event announcing the changes on Thursday. "Importantly it shrinks for that would be traveler and it shrinks for everybody else, everybody who would benefit from having that traveler with them."

Sen. Tammy Duckworth, who was also present at the event, added: "This proposed rule is so critically important. As someone who does travel with a wheelchair, I can't tell you how many times I've seen my own assistive devices and others' broken. People don't realize that this is a part of my body. If this is broken, you've broken my legs."

"People who travel with mobility devices deserve better," Duckworth continued. "Under this rule, once it's finalized, they will get better."

Prior to being formalized, the new policy will now be subject to comments from the public for the next 60 days.

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Opheli Garcia Lawler is a Staff Writer on the News team at Thrillist. She holds a bachelor's and master's degree in Journalism from NYU's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. She's worked in digital media for eight years, and before working at Thrillist, she wrote for Mic, The Cut, The Fader, Vice, and other publications. Follow her on Twitter @opheligarcia and Instagram @opheligarcia.