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Proposed Federal Rules Aim To Keep Airlines From Breaking Passengers' Wheelchairs

The Department of Transportation proposed regulations on Thursday would make it easier to hold airlines accountable for damaging passengers’ wheelchairs in an effort to improve air travel for disabled customers.

Under the proposed regulation, breaking, damaging or losing wheelchairs or other mobility devices would qualify as a violation of the Air Carrier Access Act, a law that bars airlines from discriminating on the basis of disability. In 2023, airlines mishandled more than 11,000 wheelchairs and scooters, according to the department.

The proposed changes would also require airlines to provide annual training for employees who physically assist disabled passengers.

“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 on Thursday. “This new rule would change the way airlines operate to ensure that travelers using wheelchairs can travel safely and with dignity.”

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The new regulation is among several that the DOT has brought forward in recent years to bolster protections for disabled passengers and make air travel more accessible.

In 2022, the DOT published a “bill of rights” for disabled passengers. Last year, the department issued a regulation requiring, among other things, that new single-aisle aircrafts with a minimum of 125 seats have larger, wheelchair-accessible bathrooms with accessibility features.

While disability rights advocates are excited to see efforts made to improve air travel, many are worried the new regulations will run up against a deadline that could prevent them from moving forward.

Under the Congressional Review Act, executive branch agencies are required to report their rulemaking activities to Congress to give lawmakers a chance to strike down new rules. A provision within the also allows for a new Congress to review and act on rules from the previous session during a specific time period.

Mia Ives-Rublee, the director of the Disability Justice Initiative at the Center for American Progress, told HuffPost she and others in the disability community are worried that the proposed rules for airlines, as well as pending regulations that have been proposed by the Department of Justice and other agencies to support disabled Americans, could be wiped away if Donald Trump retakes the presidency.

“If there is a change in administration for the following year, that administration could just strip all those changes with sort of a stroke of a pen,” Ives-Rublee explained. “So we want to try and get these things done as soon as possible, and that means that we need the… agencies to act as soon as possible so that we aren’t running into that deadline.”

In an emailed statement to HuffPost, a spokesperson for the Department of Transportation said that the proposed changes will be published in the Federal Register and will be open to public comment for 60 days.

“The Department views this issue as a priority and will work expeditiously to review the public comments and determine how to proceed consistent with federal requirements,” the spokesperson said.

Ives-Rublee adds that while she’s happy that the regulations have been proposed, she wants to see the department branch out and address other, more immediate transportation-related concerns of the disability community, such as the shortcomings of paratransit and public transportation systems.

For example, in New York, only about 27% subway stations are accessible, according to The New York Times, and elevators are frequently broken.

Similarly, paratransit services are specialized, door-to-door transportation for disabled people, but data shows that people experience long wait times, unreliable service and lack of compliance with standards set by federal disability law when using paratransit.

“It is important that the airlines fix what they’re doing, and these regulations are important,” Ives-Rublee said. “I’m just saying there are also other regulations that need to be completed, or even just reviewed, to address the concerns of folks who utilize public transportation and paratransit that have significant needs.”

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