U.S. Proposes New Rules to Ease Flying for Travelers in Wheelchairs

U.S. Proposes New Rules to Ease Flying for Travelers in Wheelchairs

The Biden administration announced on Thursday that it was proposing new regulations for how airlines must treat passengers in wheelchairs, an effort aimed at improving air travel for people with disabilities.

Under the proposal, damaging or delaying the return of a wheelchair would be an automatic violation of an existing federal law that bars airlines from discriminating against people with disabilities. The Transportation Department said that change would make it easier for the agency to penalize airlines for mishandling wheelchairs.

The proposed regulations would also require more robust training for workers who physically assist disabled passengers or handle their wheelchairs.

“There are millions of Americans with disabilities who do not travel by plane because of inadequate airline practices and inadequate government regulation, but now we are setting out to change that,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a statement. “This new rule would change the way airlines operate to ensure that travelers using wheelchairs can travel safely and with dignity.”

For people in wheelchairs, flying can be difficult and uncomfortable, and airline mishaps can make for an even more agonizing experience. More than 11,000 wheelchairs and scooters were mishandled by airlines last year, according to data reported to the Transportation Department.

The proposed regulations add to earlier moves by the Biden administration intended to improve the flying experience for disabled travelers. In 2022, the Transportation Department published a bill of rights for airline passengers with disabilities. Last year, the agency finalized new regulations to require more commercial aircraft to have accessible bathrooms.

Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, a former Army helicopter pilot who uses a wheelchair after losing both her legs in the Iraq war, noted that airlines had previously fought unsuccessfully against a rule that requires them to disclose the number of wheelchairs and scooters they mishandle. Ms. Duckworth said that since airlines began reporting those numbers several years ago, she had noticed improvements at airports around the country.

Ms. Duckworth, a Democrat and the chairwoman of the Senate Commerce Committee’s aviation subcommittee, said she hoped the proposed regulations would lead to a higher level of accountability for airlines. But she added that Congress should take steps to protect the policies that the Biden administration is moving to put in place.

“This rule could be overturned by a future Department of Transportation under a different administration,” said Ms. Duckworth, who attended an event at the White House on Thursday where Mr. Buttigieg discussed the new proposal.

At the event, Carl Blake, the chief executive of Paralyzed Veterans of America, which had petitioned the Transportation Department to develop new regulations to improve the boarding and deplaning process for disabled passengers, said he had never met a member of his organization who flew and whose wheelchair had not been damaged at one point or another.

Mr. Blake said the problem urgently needed to be addressed, and he emphasized the importance of using the new regulations to hold airlines accountable. “A rule with no enforcement is no rule at all,” he said.

In a statement, a spokeswoman for Airlines for America, a trade group representing the country’s largest air carriers, said that airlines had been making strides to improve the flying experience for disabled passengers through steps like enhancing training for employees.

“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 the spokeswoman, Hannah Walden.

Public comments on the proposed regulations will be accepted for 60 days. The Transportation Department did not specify a timeline for when the new measures could be finalized.