How to improve the flight experience for passengers in wheelchairs

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Jessica Dalonzo was apprehensive when she first flew in an electric wheelchair last month. She had heard horror stories from other travelers, and her manual chair had been damaged on a previous flight.

But when she flew from New York to Orlando for a vacation to Disney World, the 22-year-old entrusted Delta Air Lines with custom-made equipment, complete with detailed instructions. It was damaged on arrival but could be repaired in about an hour. It got worse on the way home, she said.

“They told me it never got on a plane with me,” she said. When she flew back to New York, the chair ended up in California. When it arrived in Dalonezo the next day, it was broken again – and more than a month later, it was still broken, she said. Delta will pay for its repairs or replacements as required by the Air Carrier Access Act, she said. Until then, she could only use the chair for short distances.

“We know our customers with disabilities rely on Delta for their travel needs, and while most of Delta’s wheelchairs and scooters are not mishandled, we understand that when we reach our destination, Delta Air Lines said in a statement. The frustration that comes when not asking for it.” “We deeply apologize for this customer’s experience and are actively working with the customer to resolve the issue through repairs and compensation.”

Dalonzo’s experience – though unique because of its repeated mishaps – is far from a one-off. Travelers have reported nearly 26,000 incidents of wheelchairs or scooters being mishandled between December 2018 and May this year when the Department of Transportation began tracking.

Disabled passengers also described long waits for boarding assistance; poor security checks; awkward transfers of assistance to the plane, which could lead to injury; Delays waiting for wheelchairs after flights take off; slow and lax DOT enforcement; and lack of recourse to hold airlines accountable.

“Almost everyone who uses a wheelchair and who flies, including my colleagues at the DOT, has an order about the aviation experience,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said at the July 26 ADA anniversary event. A disturbing story.” “Many have more than one.”

Airlines have lost or damaged more than 15,000 wheelchairs since late 2018

Travelers who spoke with The Washington Post said they noticed pre-existing problems getting worse this summer as labor shortages and frequent disruptions continued. In May alone, disability-related complaints to the Department of Transportation reached 158, more than double the number in 2019.

Airlines, industry groups and federal authorities say they are taking the issue seriously.

“American Airlines is committed to providing a high level of customer service and providing a positive and safe flying experience for all passengers, especially those who require additional assistance or travel with a mobility aid,” the trade group American Airlines said in a statement indicated in. statement. “We are committed to continuing to work with the disabled community, aircraft and mobility aid manufacturers, and safety regulators to explore safe and feasible solutions to reduce barriers to air travel.”

Advocates say they want to see more progress.

Alvaro Silberstein, co-founder and CEO of Wheel the World, a booking platform for accessible travel experiences, said: “I see a lot of airlines communicating that they want to be the most convenient and inclusive Sexual airline statements.” “But I haven’t seen the real action behind those statements.”

So far this year, the Department of Transport has taken steps to address some major issues, including accessible bathrooms on planes, the right of passengers to bring their own mobile devices on board, wheelchair handling and more. But some of these moves may not yield meaningful action for years or even decades. The recently published Bill of Rights for Passengers with Disabilities is just a summary of the laws that are already on the books.

“They’re working on all these things … but unfortunately, it’s still a baby step toward truly fair travel,” said Alex Elegudin, president of New York City-based Wheeling Forward, which serves people with disabilities.

He and three other travelers and disability advocates said there were more airlines, and the government could and should.

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If the wheelchair is damaged or destroyed, the carrier must bear the cost of repair or replacement. But John Morris, founder of accessible travel site Wheelchair Travel, who has flown more than 50 times this year, said if they took on more responsibility, they would be more motivated to improve.

Morris said this should happen in two ways: increased enforcement by the Department of Transportation, and private civil lawsuits by passengers under the Air Carrier Access Act.

One big problem: Travelers can’t sue airlines for violating the act, aviation attorney Tom Stilwell said in an email, though if they sue under other state laws, they can use the law to define what airlines owe them.

Morris said Congress needs to make it clear that travelers can sue under the law. Passengers whose wheelchairs are destroyed could be incapacitated for months and could face lost wages, health complications or other consequences that airlines cannot afford, he said.

“I think the thing that makes airlines take the Air Carrier Access Act more seriously is if they find themselves challenged in court for failing to meet their obligations,” he said.

A typical appeal from travelers is to file a DOT complaint; the department warns that its response “may take some time” and that if it collects fines, those fines will be paid to the government, not the person filing the complaint. Often, enforcement actions do not include fines, but instead require airlines to stop certain actions. Morris said the Department of Transportation “failed miserably” in this regard.

The department did not respond to a request for comment about its enforcement of disability complaints. Its website lists six enforcement orders since 2017, including dismissals, with fines totalling $975,000 for the four airlines.

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Make bathrooms available on more planes

In March, the Department of Transportation announced a proposed rule to have at least one toilet on single-aisle planes — which operate most domestic routes — large enough for wheelchair users. Aircraft with multiple aisles already require an accessible restroom.

“Travelers with disabilities should not choose between dehydration or avoiding air travel altogether,” Buttigieg said. “To date, there has been no federal regulation requiring accessible toilets on single-aisle aircraft, and we knew it was time to change that.”

The effort has been in the works for several years and appears to have made progress in 2016, with a deal among advocates, airlines, planemakers and others. But momentum stalled, sparking lawsuits from veterans groups.

The rule is far from immediate: Under an agreement reached in 2016, it would apply to new planes ordered 18 years or delivered 20 years after the rules are finalized. Old planes don’t have to be retrofitted. The department said it could adjust that schedule and was looking for ways it could make improvements more quickly.

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Wheelchairs are allowed

Every traveler who spoke to The Washington Post said it would be a game-changer if they could board a plane with a chair and put it in the cabin. Most people have to be transferred to small chairs that fit into the aisle of the plane, usually with assistance, and then moved to their seats when the wheelchair goes under the plane. This increases the risk of damage to the chair and injury during transfer.

“No other means of transportation — trains, buses, ships — force you to give up your mobile device when you board. So should airlines,” Buttigieg said last month. “So, in the coming months and years, we plan to have a new rule that will allow passengers to stay in their personal wheelchairs while flying. We know this won’t happen overnight, but it’s us A goal that must be worked towards.”

Dalonzo says being able to take her chair to a plane — and sit on it in flight — makes a big difference.

“It’s just too uncomfortable for me to sit in a regular airline seat,” she said. “So, if I could have my own chair, I would be able to go further; I really wouldn’t be going very far.”

Even if passengers still need to change seats on the plane, they say the experience will be much better than it is now because if they board in their own chairs, it’s easier to change seats and their equipment is less likely to be damaged.

“I think this is a huge opportunity not only for airlines, but a huge increase in independence and self-determination for people with disabilities,” Morris said.

He said systems to ensure wheelchair safety still needed to be approved and regulated – and steps should be taken quickly.

“What I don’t want to see is a cautious or delayed regulatory process like we’ve seen with accessible toilets,” Morris said. “It’s not something that people should wait four or five years to see become a reality.”

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Travellers also said people handling wheelchairs and assisting wheelchair users should receive more training. Dalonzo said she explained to workers how to use her chair and drive it.

“It’s still broken,” she said.

Elegudin said he saw the porter turn his chair upside down.

“I literally sat in my seat and looked out the window and saw them holding my chair and got angry and on the verge of crying because I saw what they were doing,” he said. “And there’s no way this chair will survive.”

Workers need better training in transferring people with disabilities, he said. He believes many are expecting older passengers, who may just have to be pushed into wheelchairs because they can’t walk the great distances at the airport.

Make ancillary work more attractive

Silberstein said that even in the pre-pandemic period, he did not feel that people who provided wheelchair assistance were satisfied with their jobs, whether because of low wages, insufficient training or other working conditions. These workers are often employed by companies that act as airline contractors and rely on tips to make up for low wages.

Improving working conditions and paying more would also help address staffing shortages, Morris said.

“Make that role more attractive to workers and you’ll see demand for those roles,” he said.

Prioritize wheelchair users

Travelers who spoke to The Washington Post said they often ended up waiting on planes for their chairs, or were transferred from the plane to airline-provided chairs and waited until their own equipment was lifted.

Elegudin describes it as “not a makeshift rinky-dink airport wheelchair designed for me”.

“I sat in it for half an hour to 40 minutes, waiting for my real chair to emerge from wherever it was supposed to be,” he said.

He said he had travelled to other countries where wheelchairs would soon be returned to the disembarkation area – much better.

Silberstein, who typically installs electric devices in his manual wheelchairs, said travelers need an airline to decide that they are different and take actions that are more friendly to disabled passengers.

“This will enable other companies in the industry to follow suit,” he said.

Communities need champions — both in politics and industry, Elegudin said.

“I wish there was a way for an airline to do that and people would say, you know what, this is the airline I’m going to fly on,” he said. “I’m going to make that airline the airline of my choice because they chose the fair route.”

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