New Regulations Will Make Flying “Safer and More Dignified” for Passengers With Disabilities

If adopted, the new rules will provide passengers who rely on wheelchairs with several new rights, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg tells AFAR.

Travelers walking past wall of windows in airport and a person in a wheelchair being pushed

In 2023, airline carriers mishandled 11,527 wheelchairs.

Photo by Shutterstock

“It’s not a moment too soon to make travel safer and more dignified for people with disabilities,” Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg told AFAR last week during a phone interview about newly proposed regulations that intend to make flying easier for wheelchair-dependent travelers. “It’s the right thing to do,” he said.

My daughter Claire is one of the 5.5 million Americans who rely on a wheelchair to move around. Disabled passengers like my daughter are required to check their wheelchairs before boarding a plane. Airlines damage and lose wheelchairs at an alarming rate. In 2023, airline carriers reported that they mishandled 11,527 wheelchairs. According to data collected by the Department of Transportation, wheelchairs are mishandled at a much higher rate than baggage and there has been no improvement over the past five years. For Claire and other people with disabilities, flying is a stressful and nerve-wracking experience. Those who rely on wheelchairs never know whether their wheelchairs will be waiting for them at their destination or if their wheelchairs will be damaged if they do arrive.

Without a working wheelchair, disabled passengers arrive at their destination having lost not just their mobility but also their independence. Often, a lost or damaged wheelchair leaves a person with a disability trapped at home or in a hotel room. Waiting for an expensive repair or replacement can take months. Secretary Buttigieg told AFAR that he also heard from other disabled passengers who said that they had been physically injured while receiving assistance boarding or deplaning. And there are stories of those who have been stranded on planes for hours because no one was available to help. One passenger who requires physical assistance to get on and off planes told Secretary Buttigieg that he “felt like a piece of luggage” when flying.

Like many other disabled people, my daughter Claire stopped flying for years because the risks were too high. Claire’s wheelchair was damaged repeatedly by airlines. The very real possibility that she would be homebound for weeks after every flight meant that my family stuck to traveling by car for a long stretch of time. The only time we risk flying with Claire is when it’s absolutely necessary, such as for her grandmother’s memorial service.

Disabled travelers need more protections

After many disabled passengers told Secretary Buttigieg about their “lived experience” of flying, he realized that “the current rules are not enough,” he said. As a result, on February 27, 2024, the Department of Transportation proposed new regulations to help protect the rights of air passengers with disabilities.

If adopted, the new regulations will provide disabled passengers with several new rights. Among them is the right to choose their own provider to repair or replace wheelchairs that have been mishandled by the airport or airline; the prompt return of delayed wheelchairs; the right to receive prompt assistance when disembarking; the right to have their wheelchair waiting near the airplane’s exit door; and the right to be notified immediately if their wheelchair does not fit on an aircraft.

The new regulations would also require annual training for airline employees and contractors who physically assist passengers with mobility disabilities and those who handle passengers’ wheelchairs. Additionally, the regulations would make it easier for the Department of Transportation to fine airlines that violate the rights of disabled passengers.

Secretary Buttigieg told AFAR that he hopes, and expects, that airlines will embrace these changes because it means their customers “will have more confidence in the experience they will have as an airline passenger.” He also hopes that the many people with disabilities who have “simply decided not to be passengers anymore because the process is that uncertain and that difficult” will return to flying and that those who do fly will have increased confidence that their safety and dignity will be protected.

Long overdue changes don’t go far enough, advocates say

Cory Lee, a travel blogger and disability advocate who uses a wheelchair, told AFAR that he is “incredibly excited about this new proposal. While it is long overdue, I’m happy that something is finally being done to make air travel more accessible.”

Lee is a frequent flier and said that his wheelchair “gets damaged in some way” on about half the flights he takes. “If an able-bodied person’s legs were being broken on 50 percent of flights they take, there would be outrage, but for the disability community, this is just a part of travel that we’ve had to accept for too long.” Lee is most excited about the proposal to require annual training for airline staff. “So often when I fly, the staff members don’t know how to properly handle my wheelchair or me, so I think this will make air travel much safer,” he said.

While Lee thinks that “any step toward a more inclusive flying experience is a good step,” he would like to see regulations go further. Eventually, he would like to see regulations in place that require airlines to have space for passengers to stay securely in their wheelchairs during flights, just as they can when traveling on buses and trains.

Elena Hung, the cofounder of Little Lobbyists, a family-led organization that advocates for the rights of children with complex medical needs and disabilities, also supports the new regulations. She told AFAR that “just like all children, disabled children also want, and should be able to, take a plane to visit family or go on vacation. Travel shouldn’t be so fraught with so many barriers, and it is past time to do something about it.” However, Hung would also like to see the proposed rules go further. She said that “everything that makes travel more accessible is a step in the right direction” but added that “accessible bathrooms on airplanes and in airports, including adult changing tables” would make travel easier and more attainable for travelers with disabilities.

The Department of Transportation is encouraging members of the public to submit comments about the proposed rules through April 27. Then the Department of Transportation is likely to issue final regulations, which airlines will be required to implement.

Jamie Davis Smith is a writer, attorney, and mother of four. Her writing has appeared in Fodor’s Travel, Travel + Leisure, USA Today, Yahoo, Business Insider, The Huffington Post, Scary Mommy, and many other publications. When not off exploring, Jamie can be found enjoying her hometown of Washington, D.C.
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