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Tom Wheaton, a veteran who has been paralyzed for the last 35 years, knows the hassles of getting from point A to point B. But flying is “where I notice my disability the most,” he said.
At the entrance of a recent Denver-bound plane in Boston, one airline worker held a narrow aisle wheelchair steady while Wheaton transferred himself from his custom manual wheelchair using his arms, with help from his brother. He had to resituate to keep himself from falling off the chair, then another worker helped adjust his feet. The two employees then strapped him in and pushed him onto the plane.
It’s a process that could hurt him and other wheelchair users. “One false move and I’m on the floor,” he said.
In an incident years ago, Wheaton was put on bed rest for months after a metal hook on an armrest scraped him as he slid to his seat, leading to a pressure wound.
Wheaton and other disabled fliers face risk of injury, wheelchair damage, and constant headaches every time they board a plane, where they are at the mercy of staff who assist them and aircraft not built to accommodate them. Now, Congress is weighing federal aviation legislation under the pressure of a looming deadline that in part aims to address some of the challenges.
Advocates for accessible travel are optimistic that the broad aviation policy bill (H.R. 3935, S. 1939), if enacted, could ease some of wheelchair users’ struggles, including through training standards that proponents hope could prevent injuries and damages. Meanwhile, wheelchair-friendly bathroom requirements in single-aisle airplanes are also on tap after long-stalled rules were recently finalized by the Biden administration.
“We’re really hoping this spells the beginning of a new chapter,” Heather Ansley, associate executive director of government relations at Paralyzed Veterans of America, said. “There’s still a lot to do to make air travel more accessible and safe and dignified for people with disabilities.”
Congress reauthorizes the Federal Aviation Administration about every five years, giving lawmakers an opportunity to set and change major policy for the industry. Current authorization expires at the end of the month, and there is bipartisan agreement in both chambers’ bills on some accessibility provisions. But disagreement on unrelated provisions has stalled the legislation’s progress.
“This is a top issue because they know that these FAA reauthorization bills only come around every five, six years and this is a real opportunity to hopefully affect some positive change,” said Maynard Friesz, vice president of policy and advocacy for Cure SMA, referring to individuals with spinal muscular atrophy who shared their personal stories with lawmakers and in a report this year.
House lawmakers passed a bipartisan, five-year FAA bill in July, which included several accessibility provisions, such as setting a deadline for the Transportation Department to investigate and respond to disability-related complaints and requiring accessible kiosks and websites for disabled air travelers.
The bipartisan Senate legislation includes similar provisions, though it has been stalled for months at the committee level over disagreements on pilot training. Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), aviation subcommittee chair who uses a wheelchair herself, said she worked to include provisions to minimize injury to passengers and put greater responsibility on airlines.
“It’s not a red state or blue state issue; everybody has constituents who have disabilities who travel and need this help,” Duckworth said.
Disagreements in past bill negotiations led to short-term extensions for aviation programs, which could stunt accessibility progress.
“What we do not want to see certainly is a long-term extension of the current authorities under the FAA,” said Paul Melmeyer, vice president of public policy and advocacy for Muscular Dystrophy Association. “That would only, of course, kick the can down the road even further for the inaccessibility of air travel for our community.”
‘Extension of My Body’
Lawmakers have heard ample concerns about wheelchair and scooter damage. At least 4,550 wheelchairs were damaged in the first five months of this year alone, according to Transportation Department data.
Before he could exit the Denver-bound plane, veteran Wheaton, like other wheelchair users, had to wait to see whether he would get his chair back without delay or damage. Custom manual chairs like his cost about $5,000, while power chairs cost tens of thousands of dollars. Once, Wheaton’s chair came back with a cracked frame, and he had to use duct tape to keep it together while waiting for a part.
John Morris, who became disabled in a 2012 car accident, recently watched from a plane’s window as his power wheelchair fell while it was being loaded. “I’ve seen my chair get damaged many times, but what I had never seen is the chair actually falling off the belt loader,” Morris said, adding that his chair cost about $40,000.
Morris, who started the blog Wheelchair Travel and tracks his frequent flying experiences, said he believed that the official statistics are “grossly underreported” as travelers may feel smaller damage isn’t worth the complaint process.
A recent Paralyzed Veterans of America survey found that of those who travel with a wheelchair or scooter, almost 70% reported damage to the device. More than 63% said they need to use an aisle chair, with many saying they were “unsafe, in poor condition, and not readily available.”
Some wheelchair users are denied seemingly simple asks, such as access to cabinets already on the plane that fit manual wheelchairs. Matt Scott, a paralympian who has testified to lawmakers about his experiences, said that policy isn’t honored, and pointed to times when his basketball wheelchair was damaged in cargo and he couldn’t play until it was fixed.
“The most disheartening is when I arrive to the destination and my equipment is in shambles. It’s treated as equipment,” Scott said. “This is very much an extension of my body.”
Bigger Bathrooms on Planes
After staff wheeled him down the aisle on his flight to Denver, Wheaton carefully shifted himself using his arms from the wheelchair to the plane’s window seat— a spot he selects knowing he won’t be able to move or use the bathroom for nearly five hours until every passenger departs.
“My anxiety level is a little bit higher here because of the longevity,” said Wheaton, who limits what he drinks and eats before the flight.
Some changes to planes are already coming. After decades of advocacy groups pushing for more accessible bathrooms on planes, the Transportation Department recently published a final rule, which goes into effect in October, requiring lavatories on new single-aisle aircraft be large enough for a passenger with a disability and attendant. The rule will apply to new planes ordered starting in 2033 or delivered beginning in 2035.
Cost has been a concern for airlines in past rule proposals. The department’s economic analysis of the lavatory rule found net revenue impacts to airlines will range from a loss of 1.6% to a gain of less than 1% from the new mandate—and that airfare increases could range from zero to 4%, depending on the ability of airlines to pass on costs.
Hannah Walden, a spokesperson for Airlines for America, the trade group that represents major airlines, said its carriers support accessible lavatories on single-aisle aircraft and would continue to work with Congress “through the FAA reauthorization process on meaningful and realistic accessibility measures.”
Still, while advocates may have reason to be hopeful for some improvements to the flying experience, the list of potential woes that passengers in wheelchairs face extend beyond the proposals advancing.
Many power wheelchair users are waiting for the day when they can stay in their own chair in flight. The 2018 FAA reauthorization (Public Law 115-254) directed the US Access Board to examine wheelchair securement systems, which the board found feasible in a report. A 2022 report from the University of Washington estimated that $45 million could be saved per year across the airline industry by eliminating damage costs with a dedicated wheelchair spot.
This year’s aviation legislation would require more feasibility and economic impact studies before a rulemaking process for passengers to bring their own wheelchairs onto planes. Some wheelchair users say they’d like to see that measure expedited instead of more studies, especially as a prototype debuted from Delta Flights Products this year. The bill would also mandate transparency on cargo hold dimensions so passengers are aware how their chair would fit.
Meanwhile, while Wheaton waited for every passenger to exit before he could be moved off the plane, a flight attendant told him someone sat in his wheelchair on the jet-bridge, then flipped backwards. By the time Wheaton made it to baggage claim, he had to hunt through carousels as it’d taken so long that his flight was already removed from the directory screen.
“It’d be nice to have true access for all,” Wheaton said. “There’s less dignity in this experience.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Lillianna Byington in Washington at email@example.com