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."
Just how many wheelchairs have been lost or damaged by the airlines is unclear.
In its last report to Congress on air travel complaints, DOT officials said that 34 U.S. carriers in calendar year 2016 reported receiving 27,842 disability-related air travel complaints, and 150 foreign air carriers reported receiving 4,603, for a total of 32,445 complaints.
"Nearly half of the complaints reported [14,591] concerned the failure to provide adequate assistance to persons using wheelchairs," officials said, but there were no statistics on lost or damaged wheelchairs.
Beginning Jan. 1, the DOT has pledged to publish new rules requiring airlines to provide more accurate data on wheelchairs and mishandled baggage in general, although airline lobbying has resulted in similar rules being delayed in the past.
A government official, on background, said the new rules would "provide for the first time separate data for the number of wheelchairs and scooters that were transported as checked baggage and the number of these items that were mishandled."
In addition, the DOT will require that data from the airlines "include not only mishandled baggage and wheelchair data on flights that they operate but also mishandled baggage and wheelchair data for flights."
The same rules had been scheduled to go into effect Jan. 1, 2018, but the airlines requested a delay to implement them that was granted by the incoming Trump administration, which has put an emphasis on deregulation.
The trade group Airlines For America, which represents most of the U.S. carriers, asked for more time for the airlines to comply, and the DOT went along with the request. In a court filing, DOT deputy general counsel Judith Kaleta said, "After carefully considering the requests, we have decided to grant an extension of the compliance date for the final rule on reporting of mishandled baggage and wheelchairs until January 1, 2019."
"We'd like to take the agency [DOT] at its word" on putting the new rules into effect in January, but the lawsuits will continue, said Charisma Troiano, a spokeswoman for the legal advocacy group Democracy Forward, which is representing the PVA in the two cases.
At a hearing last week in the Washington, D.C., Circuit Court on the PVA's wheelchair suit, Judge Harry T. Edwards appeared to express frustration at Justice Department lawyers representing the DOT on delays in changing the rules under the Air Carrier Access Act.
"Can't the government do what is right because it is right?" Edwards asked.
"This requirement has been kicking around for five years," Heather Ansley, the PVA's associate executive director of Government Relations, said of the proposed new rules. "In our opinion, the lawsuits are not moot" because of the pledge from the DOT to change the rules Jan. 1.
Currently, the airlines are required to replace or repair wheelchairs or reimburse disabled passengers for loss or damages, but the PVA maintains that the issue goes well beyond the aggravation and inconvenience suffered by veterans.
The PVA has cited cases in which veterans had to be put up in hotels for days while waiting for damaged wheelchairs to be repaired or replaced, and incidents in which veterans suffered pressure sores while sitting in hard airline wheelchairs while waiting for their own personalized wheelchairs to be returned.
The PVA's lawsuit cites the experience of Larry Dodson, of North Augusta, South Carolina, who said that his power wheelchair had been damaged by airlines "on numerous occasions."
After one flight, the chair was misplaced by the airline. White waiting for its return, he had to sit in an unsuitable chair, which left him with pressure sores that took three days to heal, Dodson said in the court filing.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.