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New Law Addresses Needs of Disabled Plane Passengers

Sandy rolled up to the table where her poker club sat.

“Well?” asked her friend, Diana. “How was the trip?”

Sandy rolled her eyes. “Let’s see. The TSA agent kept insisting I had to walk through the security screener, even though I was in a wheelchair and told her I couldn’t walk. Finally, they brought me an airport-approved wheelchair and took mine apart. They put it together wrong and I almost wound up on the floor.” She shook her head.  “The fools almost made me miss my flight.”

“Oh, my,” said Lydia, another poker partner.

Sandy winced. “When I got to the boarding gate, the airline wouldn’t allow me to bring my wheelchair on the plane, so I had to check it as baggage. Then midflight, when I needed to use the restroom, the flight attendants said they were too busy to assist me.”

“What did you do?” asked Diana.

“I got lucky. The woman seated next to me was a nurse, so she helped me.” Sandy winced again. “Of course, the restroom was so small that I couldn’t maneuver in it and the nurse couldn’t get in there to help. I couldn’t even close the door. What a disaster.”

“The same thing happened to my mom,” said Andrea, the fourth member of the club. “She was so embarrassed. Said next time, she was going to wear adult diapers. Damn airlines.”

Sandy held up a hand. “That’s not all. When the plane landed, some able-bodied business woman grabbed the wheelchair the airline had ordered for me and ordered the sky cap to get a move on. I was standing right there, being held up by two flight attendants! She threw some money at him and he took off. I had to wait almost a half hour to get another wheelchair.”

A disgusted expression crossed Lydia’s face. “That’s just horrible. Did you complain?”

Again, Sandy held up her hand. “When I finally got another wheelchair, I was taken to the baggage claim and my own wheelchair was waiting, dented and broken. The friend who picked me up had to go into town and rent another one, because without a wheelchair, I was going nowhere.”

Lydia, Diana, and Andrea gasped. “Did the airline pay for the rental?” Lydia asked.

“Nope,” Sandy said. “I complained at the airport. They said I should have transported it in some sort of protective case. When I pointed out that the airline was the one who refused to take it on the plane, where it would have been safe, they just ignored me. So I wrote a letter to the airline. They never responded.” She paused. “I mailed my wheelchair home. I knew the airline would probably do even more damage.”

Diana scowled. “That’s a hell of a way to treat people who are disabled. There has to be a better way.”

Sandy shook her head. “I went online, looking for a place to complain. Turns out the treatment of disabled passengers by airlines is a big issue. A lot of complaints have been filed. I am convinced the airlines aren’t interested in serving disabled passengers at all. They made it pretty clear I was nothing but a bother.”

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, one in five Americans have some type of disability. One in 10 are seriously disabled. Since there were 764 million flyers between July 2017 and 2018, according U.S. Department of Transportation, millions of those passengers were likely disabled.

Yet, organizations that advocate for the disabled report that some airlines have a long history of mistreating disabled passengers. A new law may change that. On October 5, 2018, the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act of 2018 was signed into law. That law calls for:

  • The creation of an advisory committee to study the needs of disabled fliers. The committee is responsible for addressing barriers in airline travel, such as airport accessibility, best practices for ticketing, pre-flight check-in, and storing assistive devices on planes.
  • The development of an Airline Passengers with Disabilities Bill of Rights. At a minimum, the Bill of Rights must include the right of passengers with disabilities to—
    • be treated with dignity and respect,
    • receive timely assistance when requested,
    • travel with assistive devices,
    • receive seating accommodations,
    • receive announcements in an accessible format, and,
    • file complaints.

The Bill of Rights document must be posted on airline websites and provided to disabled passengers requesting assistance.

  • Increased penalties for causing bodily harm to a disabled passenger or damage to an assistive device, including wheelchairs. Generally, penalties of $32,140 will be imposed for each injury or instance of property damage. In addition, the airline must reimburse the passenger for damage to mobility aids.
  • Disability-sensitive transportation security agency (TSA) screening. Revisions must be made to training and screening processes in response to complaints by disability and veterans’ organizations.
  • Better enforcement of reporting requirements for the improper handling of wheelchairs and scooters transported in aircraft cargo departments. Current law requires that the mishandling of baggage of any kind be reported within 60 days of occurrence. The mishandling of assistive aids must now be reported separately.
  • A requirement that airlines report the number of available restrooms on each plane, including the number accessible to the disabled.
  • A study on the feasibility of in-cabin wheelchair restraint systems and related accommodations.

There was a time when travel by people with disabilities on all modes of public transportation was strongly discouraged. Buses and trains have led the way in accommodating those unable to drive. Sadly, the airlines have lagged behind. Hopefully, that industry will view the new law as an opportunity to better serve disabled fliers. And maybe, one day, the horror stories posted on social media will become a thing of the past.

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