Chair DeFazio Presses Airlines on the Mishandling of Mobility Aids for Passengers with Disabilities
Washington, DC—Yesterday, Chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Peter DeFazio (D-OR), sent a letter to President and CEO of Airlines for America Nicholas Calio, CEO of Delta Air Lines Ed Bastian, and President of the National Air Carriers Association George Novak requesting information on the largest U.S. airlines’ current policies, procedures, and practices regarding their handling of wheelchairs and scooters for passengers with disabilities. Currently, thousands of wheelchairs and scooters are estimated to be mishandled by airlines each year, creating challenges for millions of Americans who experience limited mobility. According to an investigative piece published on October 19, in The Register-Guard, U.S. carriers reported having mishandled at least 6,915 chairs between January and August—an average of 29 times a day.
“We write to express our strong view that the U.S. airline industry must do more to prevent mishandling of mobility aids for passengers with disabilities. The act of taking a passenger airline flight is an expression of mobility, and we appreciate that more and more Americans with disabilities are choosing to fly. But there is a growing need to ensure that their mobility aids are being safely enplaned and that passengers are provided a clear and fair remedy when their mobility aids are mishandled,” DeFazio wrote in the letter.
A copy of the letter can be found below.
November 13, 2019
We write to express our strong view that the U.S. airline industry must do more to prevent mishandling of mobility aids for passengers with disabilities. The act of taking a passenger airline flight is an expression of mobility, and we appreciate that more and more Americans with disabilities are choosing to fly. But there is a growing need to ensure that their mobility aids are being safely enplaned and that passengers are provided a clear and fair remedy when their mobility aids are mishandled.
According to the most recent Census, nearly 57 million Americans have a disability, and more than half experience issues with physical mobility. Flying presents particular challenges for this group of Americans. These challenges were highlighted in a recent wire service investigative article published by numerous newspapers nationwide, including the Eugene Register-Guard, an Oregon newspaper. The article detailed alarming instances of airlines failing to respond meaningfully to complaints of wheelchair mishandling, refusing to repair or replace damaged wheelchairs, and encountering difficulty in providing the Department of Transportation (DOT) with accurate data regarding their rates of mobility aid mishandling.
These stories tend to echo recent testimony before the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure by Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) President David Zurfluh, who said that his organization’s members “routinely report bodily harm in boarding and deplaning aircraft, and their wheelchairs, particularly power wheelchairs, are often damaged while stowed.” He added that PVA members often elect to drive long distances rather than risk personal injury or damage to their mobility devices. This is simply unacceptable. Flying is about mobility; flying should not risk damage to devices so essential to certain passengers’ everyday lives.
While the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018, enacted last year, made great strides to improve the flying experience for passengers with disabilities, there is mounting evidence that more work still needs to be done. For instance, according to the most recently available data, in 2017, passengers filed 34,701 disability-related complaints pertaining to domestic and foreign air carriers, representing a 6.5 percent increase over 2016 and an 11 percent increase over 2015. Furthermore, according to the DOT’s Air Travel Consumer Report containing data from July 2019, airlines enplaned 66,516 wheelchairs and scooters and mishandled 1,143 of those, or 1.73 percent. And that reflects just the number of mishandling cases that were reported. As recounted in the newspaper story referenced above, many instances are likely to go unreported since damage to wheelchairs may not always be readily apparent and many people do not have the time or patience to go through the potentially cumbersome process of filing a report with the responsible airline.
Mr. Zurfluh’s testimony and media accounts are instructive, but it is important that the Committee has all the information available to better understand how we can reduce airlines’ rate of wheelchair mishandling. In that spirit, we would respectfully request that Airlines for America provide the Committee with the following information with respect to the largest six passenger carriers that are members of the association:
- Each carrier’s policies and procedures for timely reimbursement of passengers for lost, damaged, or otherwise mishandled mobility aids;
- Each carrier’s current training practices for employees and contractors responsible for assisting passengers with disabilities with boarding and deplaning, and stowing their mobility aids;
- Any steps each carrier is currently taking to improve its handling of mobility aids; and
- Any steps each carrier is currently taking to ensure the carrier is accurately reporting, to the DOT, the number of cases of mobility aid mishandling each month.
Without effective accommodations—including optimized airline policies and procedures to ensure the careful handling of wheelchairs and other assistive devices—people with disabilities will continue to face challenges when flying on a commercial air carrier. That is why it is incumbent upon all of us—Congress, the Executive Branch, and industry—to ensure we are doing everything in our power to remove these barriers and provide equal access for everyone who wishes to fly. We hope to work with Airlines for America to help push us closer to meeting this goal.
Thank you for your attention to this matter, and we look forward to your response.
PETER A. DeFAZIO RICK LARSEN
Chair Chair, Subcommittee on Aviation
SHARICE L. DAVIDS
Vice Chair, Subcommittee on Aviation