Paralyzed Vets Want to Crack Down on Airlines over Broken, Lost Wheelchairs

A prominent veteran in the Senate received a rude surprise last year when she came off a flight to have her wheelchair collapse underneath her. It was a window into a problem faced by many paralyzed and disabled veterans who are now suing the Department of Transportation, saying their wheelchairs have been lost or damaged by careless airlines.

Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Illinois, described her story in a 2017 letter to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao.

“On a recent trip, I retrieved my wheelchair at the end of the jet bridge, but a titanium rod had been damaged during the flight and my chair literally broke apart while I was sitting in it,” said Duckworth, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and helicopter pilot who lost her legs in Iraq in 2004.

It was not the first time, she said in the letter.

“In the past year, I have had my personal wheelchair mishandled and damaged several times. I have spent hours filling out paperwork and working with the carrier to replace damaged parts,” she wrote.

Duckworth’s letter echoed long-standing complaints by the Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA), which has filed two lawsuits to force DOT to live up to long-delayed pledges to adopt new rules on air travel for the disabled.

One suit, now in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, focuses on the handling and storage of wheelchairs in cargo bays. The second, in the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, seeks to improve access to aircraft lavatories.

Rep. Jim Langevin, D-Rhode Island, the only quadriplegic ever to serve in Congress, introduced a bill earlier this year to amend the Air Carrier Access Act, which prohibits discrimination against disabled travelers, in an effort to back up the PVA’s actions.

“Despite three decades of progress, I know firsthand the challenges of airplane travel for someone with a disability,” he said in a statement. “This bill will promote inclusivity by making substantial improvements in ticketing, passenger assistance, and airplane accessibility and accommodation.”

In supporting the Langevin bill, PVA National President David Zurfluh said, “although the Air Carrier Access Act prohibits disability-based discrimination in air travel, too many of our members continue to suffer bodily harm in the boarding and deplaning process, and their wheelchairs sustain damage while being stowed and transported.”

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