Sen. Duckworth on legislation to improve airline handling of mobility, medical devices

Disabled travelers in the United States often face embarrassing security pat downs, damaged or even lost mobility devices. In July, there were 834 reported incidents of damaged wheelchairs or scooters— an average of 28 a day. For more about the challenges and needed response, Judy Woodruff talks to an Illinois Democrat, Sen. Tammy Duckworth, who introduced legislation to hold airlines accountable.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    These are just some of hundreds of stories that are almost exactly like what you just heard.

    For more about the challenges and what can be done, I spoke recently with U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth, a Democrat from Illinois. She's introduced legislation that would hold airlines accountable when a wheelchair is damaged, as well as improve traveling conditions for passengers with disabilities.

    Senator Duckworth, thank you very much for joining us.

    These stories we're hearing from travelers are just terrible. How typical are they?

  • Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL):

    They are very, very typical.

    I probably see damage to my own wheelchair about every third flight that I take, so it is fairly frequent. And imagine if it was a human being, somebody's leg. Like, we were to say that, every third flight you took, the airlines broke your leg. The response would be — just people would be absolutely appalled.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Senator, this is on top of all the other issues that travelers with disabilities have to deal with in the first place.

  • Sen. Tammy Duckworth:

    Yes. Well, they are just general access issues.

    A lot of the flights we're on, most people don't realize the bathrooms are not accessible. A lot of the places, when you're on a smaller aircraft, the terminals are not even accessible. And then to — once you get on a flight, to, on the other end, have your wheelchair come back to you partially broken, or even completely broken, so that it was unusable, it's really devastating to a person who is trying to get on with their lives, whether they're working or traveling for leisure.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Explained to us, Senator Duckworth, what is the responsibility of the airlines right now to passengers with disabilities? And what more do you think needs to be done to change that?

  • Sen. Tammy Duckworth:

    Well, their only responsibility is to provide you access to get on the aircraft and to handle your wheelchair and not charge you extra baggage fees for handling your wheelchair.

    But it should be so much more than that, because, right now, medical devices like wheelchairs or walkers are treated as luggage, when they're really complex devices. My wheelchair are my legs. You break my wheelchair, you have broken my legs, I can't get around, I can't move.

    And so we really need to get the airlines to treat our medical devices as if they were part of our bodies and treat them not as just another piece of luggage to be tossed on top of a pile of other luggage, and who cares if it gets slightly damaged?

    Well, I care.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, specifically, what would you be asking the airlines to do that they're not doing now?

  • Sen. Tammy Duckworth:

    Well, I would ask the airlines to do specific training.

    Right now, their baggage handlers don't get specific trainings on how to handle medical devices. They don't have access on the aircraft itself. This Air Carrier Access Amendment Act that I recently filed with Senator Baldwin would actually strengthen enforcement and would allow, for example, removal of access barriers on existing airplanes, would require new airplanes as they're being designed and put into the fleet to be — to accommodate people with disabilities.

    It would provide a provision so that there could be civil penalties for violations, which currently do not exist.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Senator, I mean, I have seen firsthand some of what you're speaking about. I happen to have a grown son with disabilities who uses a chair.

    When you have raised this with the airlines, had conversations with them, what do they say in response?

  • Sen. Tammy Duckworth:

    It's a range of things.

    One of the things I hear a lot is, oh, that's not us that's handling it. Those baggage carriers are contractors. You need to go talk to the contracting company. And I say, well, they're your contractors, so you — it needs to be part of your contract that the people who handle the wheelchairs are trained.

    And also the people who have the contract to help put you in an aisle chair and move you down the aisle and seated into an airplane, those folks need to be properly trained for how to handle a person with a disability without hurting them and harming them.

    Then, some airlines have actually tried to do better. They're trying to train their handlers. And I will tell you that, until we passed the law in 2018, they really weren't doing much. But now they actually have to report how many wheelchairs they damage every month, you see them trying to do better, but it's still nowhere near enough.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I see also one of the arguments I have made is that airplanes are not designed and gates are not designed to carry some of the heavy equipment.

    They're pointing out the motorized wheelchairs, some of them can weigh hundreds and hundreds of pounds. And they're saying they're just not equipped to handle this kind of machinery.

  • Sen. Tammy Duckworth:

    Well, that's why the Air Carrier Access Amendment addresses this issue, which will require that new airplanes are designed to accommodate the needs of people with disabilities, to include these wheelchairs.

    And, yes, I can see in the past that airplanes that are in existence now were not designed that way. But, moving forward, they — if you're going to use that airplane for commercial — to commercially carry people, then you need to be wheelchair-accessible.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What do you think the prospects are, Senator, for the for the legislation that you're proposing?

  • Sen. Tammy Duckworth:

    Well, I don't know it's going to pass on the first go-round. I'm going to try as hard as I can.

    But, also, the Wheelchair Rule Act, it took a couple years, but we were able to pass that. I think just by nature of me introducing this legislation is putting the airlines on notice. And I'm going to keep working on this until we do pass it, because we are in this country facing an aging of our population with the demographics of baby boomers, who are going to increasingly need more medical devices.

    It's in the airlines' best interest to make sure that they're accessible to all.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, thank you very much for joining us.

  • Sen. Tammy Duckworth:

    Thank you.

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