Senator Duckworth must fly a lot in her work and she says that airline employees have damaged her wheelchairs on several occasions, including one instance when her chair collapsed while she was sitting in it.
Larry Dodson watched his 350-pound wheelchair being loaded onto the plane for his direct flight. But somehow, when the plane landed, the wheelchair was “lost.” Although it was located an hour later, Mr. Dodson had to be transferred from his seat to an uncomfortable airport wheelchair. As a result, he developed bedsores and was in bed for three days. Because of this and other similar experiences, the 70-year old quadriplegic (also a veteran) now does not feel comfortable flying. In addition to being a disheartened traveler, Mr. Dodson is Secretary of the Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA). As such, he has heard many similar stories about airline employees damaging travelers’ wheelchairs and other mobility devices.
Because of these and many similar reports, in 2011 the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (required by law) to get public input about this issue.
During a five-year period, the DOT received information from hundreds of people who had similar experiences to Duckworth and Dodson. As a result, it issued a new regulation in November 2016, requiring airlines to track instances of mishandled wheelchairs/scooters and to make this information available to the public. In that way, people choosing which airline to fly would have more information and the airlines would have more accountability.
Even though the rule was finalized in November 2016, the DOT delayed the actual implementation period to January 2018. This was based on information it had gathered that a year was long enough to allow airlines to prepare for this new requirement.
Everything was in place and ready to go. Then Donald Trump got elected.
In December 2017, Trump’s then chief of staff, Reince Priebus,sent out a memo to all federal agencies announcing a delay in the implementation of all pending federal regulations. This would seem to exclude the above rule because it was not pending – it had already been passed. Nevertheless, in March 2017, the DOT unilaterally delayed the implementation date of this rule until January 2019.
In response, the PVA filed a lawsuit against the DOT on July 31 (a copy of which is attached). The suit alleges that in pushing back the deadline, the DOT violated the law by arbitrarily changing this rule without getting public input.
We will see how the lawsuit goes, but I can’t help thinking of something Senator Duckworth said in a letter opposing the DOT’s action: “If an airline loses a passenger’s baggage, it is a serious inconvenience. If a wheelchair or motorized scooter is damaged or lost, it represents a complete loss of mobility and independence for that passenger.”