US proposes to strengthen airline passenger wheelchair regulations

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) is proposing on Thursday new rules to strengthen protections for airline passengers using wheelchairs.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said the proposed regulation is the biggest expansion of rights for wheelchair users since 2008 and would make it easier for USDOT to hold airlines accountable for damage to wheelchairs or any delay in their return.

"There are millions of Americans with disabilities who do not travel by plane because of inadequate airline practices and inadequate government regulation," Buttigieg said.

"We haven't had the kind of economic incentives that compel airlines to pay enough attention to proper handling of wheelchairs."

In 2023, 11,527 wheelchairs and scooters were mishandled by airlines in the United States - up 11.5% over 2022 - and there were 5.5 million Americans using a wheelchair, USDOT said.

Under the proposal, passengers could pick the vendor for repairs or replacements of damaged and mishandled wheelchairs. USDOT also proposes to require airlines to provide loaner wheelchairs and transport delayed wheelchairs to passengers' final destination within 24 hours of arrival.

USDOT also wants to mandate enhanced employee training and require airlines to ensure personal wheelchairs are available as close as possible to the aircraft door for exiting passengers.

USDOT in July last year also said it would require airlines to make lavatories on future single-aisle airplanes large enough to permit a passenger with a disability and attendant to enter and maneuver.

The proposal will be open for public comments for 60 days.

The department is considering future regulations to allow passengers to stay in their own wheelchairs when they fly.

In September, United Airlines agreed following an investigation to improve air travel for passengers using wheelchairs under an agreement with USDOT, including offering refunds for the difference if a higher-fare flight is needed to accommodate a specific wheelchair size.

USDOT wants comment on whether the refund practice should be required and disclosed it has some ongoing mishandled wheelchair investigations.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Tom Hogue)