Wheelchair travel changes coming? 

Federal Department of Transportation (DOT) Secretary Pete Buttigieg has promised to work on requiring airlines to allow passengers to stay […]

Person sitting in wheelchair at airport.

Federal Department of Transportation (DOT) Secretary Pete Buttigieg has promised to work on requiring airlines to allow passengers to stay in their personal wheelchairs when they fly. 

That would be welcome news for countless travelers who have sustained serious injuries to themselves, or had wheelchairs damaged when traveling. 

“We know that this won’t happen overnight, but it is a goal that we have to work to fulfill,” Buttigieg said in a YouTube video posted recently by the Paralyzed Veterans of America. 

One recent traveler with wheelchair woes is John Tschida, former Minnesota disability community leader and current executive director of the Association of University Centers on Disability. His chair was wrecked this summer by Alaska Airlines, upending his schedule. 

“What price do you put on a week-long loss of independence while homebound in an ill-fitting loaner wheelchair that causes pressure sores?” Tschida said in a social media post. “It’s great that DOT is now quantifying the frequency of how often wheelchairs are damaged, but when will every airline be held accountable for forcing those of us with disabilities to put our lives on hold when they severely damage our chairs?” 

The American with Disabilities Act (ADA) doesn’t require airlines to make it possible for passengers to travel in their personal wheelchairs. Instead, flyers are typically transferred from their own chair in the boarding area into a narrow, airline-owned chair. Once aboard the plane, they are transferred from that chair into the standard airline seat. 

A recent National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report delivered at the behest of Congress concluded that personal wheelchair securement is technically feasible on commercial narrowbody aircraft such as Boeing 737s and Airbus A320s, provided that two successive rows of seats are removed on one side of the aisle. 

The report did not explore the financial impact to airlines of removing two rows of seats and replacing them with one row for wheelchair access. Costs, though, could be substantial — potentially totaling $1 million per plane or more, even assuming all the wheelchair slots were purchased and that the seats removed were economy class.  

In his statement, Buttigieg referred to the experience of Marine Corps veteran Charles Brown, president of PVA. Brown, Buttigieg said, was once dropped by an airline employee onto a jet bridge, breaking his tail bone and causing a near-fatal infection.  

(Source: Travel Weekly, Access Press staff) 

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