Cruising Altitude: Progress for disabled travelers is not coming fast enough

I was on a family trip to Israel a few years ago and as soon as we landed, it was obvious something was wrong. I’d flown over from New York with my parents and we were supposed to be meeting some cousins from London, who’d arrived hours earlier to Tel Aviv.

But my British family was still in the airport when we touched down. EasyJet had left my little cousin Max’s wheelchair off the plane, meaning Max, who has Cerebral Palsy, had no reasonable way to get around. Because the airport didn’t have any child-sized wheelchairs available to loan out, we wound up needing to rent one for Max from a hospital and it took days for his own wheelchair to eventually get to us from England. In the meantime, he wasn’t able to sit properly in the rental chair and he was uncomfortable as we schlepped around to different tourist sites.

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I’ve been acutely aware since that trip of how tough flying can be for disabled travelers. This year, I’m working on a project to highlight incidents of airlines in the U.S. mishandling mobility devices. But telling peoples’ individual stories is only one piece of the puzzle. Real change requires action from regulators and airlines, and I’m hoping to use my reporting to help push for some of that change.

Please reach out with one of your own stories.

According to the Department of Transportation, which has been required to track these incidents since 2019, airlines damage or otherwise mishandle about 1.5% of the mobility devices they transport each month, translating to 11,389 incidents reported in 2022. That number is hardly comprehensive. Not everyone reports their damage to the airline in the first place, but it does give a sense of how great the problem is.

“Imagine if Americans were to see that this particular airline broke 700 wheelchairs last year, but substitute ‘legs’ for ‘wheelchair,’ ” Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., told me during a recent phone conversation. “We would be calling for all sorts of fixes.”

To that end, Duckworth introduced a bill earlier this month that, if passed, would require both Congress and airlines to do more to address these incidents beyond just tracking them.

And advocates say there’s so much more to be done to make air travel accessible to everyone, too. Not all disabilities require the use of a mobility device, they point out, meaning all the focus on mobility-related issues in air travel can leave other needs unaddressed.

The proportions of this drawing may be off, but that doesn't mean accessibility in air travel isn't important.
The proportions of this drawing may be off, but that doesn't mean accessibility in air travel isn't important.

'We want the aisle chair to go away'

“This is part of the work that I’ve been doing over time,” Duckworth, who uses a wheelchair, said. “The next thing we need to know is the extent of the damage and also it would be helpful to know for those who are traveling with assistive devices, whether the aircraft can carry their devices.”

Duckworth was instrumental in getting Congress to pass the requirement that airlines report mobility device incidents separately from baggage mishandling, but she said that’s just a first step.

To properly enact change, incidents need to be quantified and responsibility assigned.

Under the Mobility Aids On Board Improve Lives and Empower All (MOBILE) Act, which Duckworth introduced earlier this month with Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., the DOT would be required to evaluate the frequency and types of damage to mobility devices and develop a plan to research the technical feasibility of accommodating passengers in wheelchairs in the main cabin, among other provisions.

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“We want the aisle chair to go away,” Heather Ansley, associate executive director of government relations at Paralyzed Veterans of America, told me. In an ideal world, she said, “you’re either riding in your own device or transferring from your own device to the seat.”

Many advocates say that having a dedicated space on board aircraft to secure wheelchairs to allow disabled passengers to fly using their own devices is a key goal.

“We do it on buses, we do it on trains,” Duckworth said. “In many ways, that is safer for the person with a disability, especially someone who has paralysis or is more medically fragile, to be strapped into a wheelchair which is basically molded to their body.”

What else needs to happen?

Beyond the provisions in Duckworth’s bill, advocates say future regulations should consider a broader scope of disabilities.

“This is a problem across the disability spectrum,” Laura Saltzman, a transportation policy analyst at Access Living of Metropolitan Chicago, told me. “The number of people I talk to over an entire range of disabilities who don’t want to make a stink about it … This can intersect issues of race or a combination of disabilities where people might feel less comfortable.”

Ansley also said that travel can be difficult for those with other kinds of disabilities as well.

“People who are deaf or hard of hearing, announcements on aircraft are not accessible, they’re barely accessible if you can hear sometimes,” she said. “It is true that air travel discriminates against just about every group of people with disabilities.”

Saltzman said airlines should consider taking a page out of the book of their existing best practices in other areas to figure out how to treat their disabled customers better.

“Checklists are mandatory for safe flights,” she said, wondering why there isn’t a more standardized procedure for how to accommodate disabled passengers. “A checklist for: This is what I have to do for wheelchairs to make sure the wheelchair is secured and not rained on and a piece is not broken off.”

A very important component: Restroom access needs to be improved too

Ansley also said that lavatory access on airplanes can be a huge problem for travelers with mobility issues.

“Having access to a lavatory on board, that means having a safe, usable onboard wheelchair that can get you to that accessible lavatory,” she said. “If you change the structure of air travel you can actually eliminate a lot of the barriers and make it a little less labor intensive in terms of physically moving and lifting people, and instead just being there to assist as the person needs.”

Single-aisle airplanes like the Boeing 737 and Airbus A320, some of the most popular aircraft in the sky today, are not required to have accessible bathrooms by the DOT.

Charlie Brown, president of Paralyzed Veterans of America, said being transferred in and out of a wheelchair can be dangerous for travelers who rely on their devices to get around too.

“Our devices, which were modified for us or built for us specifically, are put in the cargo hold,” he said. “I was dropped to the jetway one time being transferred from (my) chair to the aisle chair and it broke my tailbone,” resulting in an infection and a monthslong hospital visit.

All the advocates I spoke to for this column said airlines need to face steeper penalties for damaging mobility devices or otherwise not providing the proper accommodations for disabled travelers.

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Is the Department of Transportation doing anything?

The DOT released a bill of rights for disabled airline passengers last summer, but in a statement this week, the department acknowledged there’s more to do to make air travel accessible to everyone.

“USDOT is using all the tools available to make air travel more accessible – from formal rulemaking processes on wheelchair handling and lavatory size, which inherently are more long term, to more immediate actions like instituting the first Airline Passengers with Disabilities Bill of Rights, expanding enforcement of the Air Carrier Access Act, and working directly with the airlines to ensure all passengers are treated with dignity,” a department spokesperson said Tuesday in a statement to USA TODAY. The statement also said the DOT is working on making airports and other forms of public transit more accessible as well. “Everyone deserves safe, efficient and accessible travel,” the statement said.

It’s clear that there’s still much work to be done to make flying truly accessible for all travelers, and I’m committed to continuing to cover this important topic.

Zach Wichter is a travel reporter for USA TODAY based in New York. You can reach him at zwichter@usatoday.com

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Cruising Altitude: Taking a closer look at accessibility in air travel