Skift Take

The latest proposals from the Department of Transportation are part of a wider effort to improve the passenger experience for those with disabilities.

The Department of Transportation proposed new rules Thursday on how airlines should accommodate passengers who use wheelchairs. 

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg described the rules as the largest expansion in passenger rights for those with wheelchairs since 2008. They would also allow the DOT to better hold airlines accountable for any wheelchair violations. 

Under the new rules, delaying the return of a wheelchair or mishandling it would become an automatic violation of a federal law that prohibits airlines from discriminating against passengers with disabilities, making it easier for the DOT to penalize airlines.

“There are millions of Americans with disabilities who do not travel by plane because of inadequate airline practices and inadequate government regulation, but now we are setting out to change that,” Buttigieg said. 

The proposal would require airlines to provide a temporary replacement wheelchair to affected travelers. Companies would also have to promptly fix any damaged wheelchairs, while also covering the cost of repair.

Passengers with wheelchairs will have the right to choose a vendor for any repairs or replacements, and airlines would have to cover those costs, too.

Airlines would be required to return any delayed wheelchairs to a passenger’s final destination within 24 hours and provide wheelchairs as close as possible to the aircraft door for exiting passengers. 

The new rules would also mandate annual hands-on training for airline employees and contractors who assist travelers. 

An Uneasy Travel Experience

For many passengers, traveling with a wheelchair is an uncomfortable and nerve-wracking experience. Wheelchairs can get lost, damaged, mishandled or may not even fit in the plane, leaving passengers with little recourse. 

In 2023, 11,527 wheelchairs and scooters were mishandled by airlines, around an 11.5% increase from 2022, according to DOT data. Approximately 5.5 million Americans use a wheelchair, the DOT said. 

Previously, the DOT passed a rule in July requiring airlines to ensure their plane lavatories were accessible to passengers with disabilities. 

United Airlines said in September that it would create a flight filter on its website to make it easier for passengers to find flights where wheelchairs can fit and be safely transported. The company said it would refund the fare difference if the traveler needed a more expensive flight to accommodate their wheelchair. 


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Tags: Department of Transportation, passengers with disabilities, pete buttigieg, united airlines, wheelchairs

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