U.S. House committee leaders call for more action to prevent airline mishandling of wheelchairs

An employee pushes a woman on a wheelchair out of the international arrivals area on Terminal B at Newark Liberty International Airport on Nov. 21, 2017, in Newark, N.J.

An employee pushes a woman on a wheelchair out of the international arrivals area on Terminal B at Newark Liberty International Airport on Nov. 21, 2017, in Newark, N.J.

U.S. House committee leaders this week called for airlines to do more to prevent mishandling of wheelchairs and scooters of passengers with disabilities, and sought more information on airlines' policies and procedures.

In a letter to industry group Airlines for America CEO Nicholas Calio, Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian and National Air Carriers Association president George Novak, the members of Congress wrote that "the U.S. airline industry must do more to prevent mishandling of mobility aids for passengers with disabilities."

Nearly 57 million Americans have a disability, according to Census data release in 2012, and more than 30 million had difficulty walking or climbing stairs, or used a wheelchair, cane, crutches or walker.

An amendment by U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., a combat veteran and double amputee, became law last year and requires airlines to disclose how many wheelchairs and scooters they damage or mishandle each month.

In September, airlines checked 62,985 wheelchairs and scooters and mishandled 832 of them, a 1.32 percent mishandling rate, according to U.S. Department of Transportation data released Thursday.

The Paralyzed Veterans of America testified to Congress that the group’s members have reported being harmed boarding and deplaning aircraft, and that wheelchairs are often damaged while stowed -- particularly power wheelchairs.

Airlines for America in a written statement said carriers are working with disability groups and wheelchair manufacturers on guidelines for safe and efficient handling and storage of wheelchairs to reduce damage during flight. That includes work on procedures and training, as well as design specifications to encourage manufacturers to build wheelchairs suitable to be transported in planes.

Delta said it has an Advisory Board on Disability and a wheelchair damage reduction working group to work on employee training and improving its handling of wheelchairs.

“Even one mishandled or damaged wheelchair is unacceptable, and while we are not yet where we’d like to be, our path forward is one of continued improvement,” Delta said in a written statement.

Paralyzed Veterans of America’s national senior vice president Charles Brown said in a written statement he was injured while being transferred from a wheelchair to an aisle chair to board a plane, and ended up with a fracture. “If there were more standards and training for staff assisting passengers with disabilities, this would not have happened,” he said in the statement.

On Thursday, when a hearing was scheduled on the air travel experience for people with disabilities, U.S. House transportation committee chair Peter DeFazio, aviation subcommittee chair Rick Larsen and vice-chair Sharice Davids asked the airlines for their policies and procedures for reimbursing passengers for lost, damaged or mishandled mobility aids, training practices and steps being taken to improve handling.

Other efforts are also underway.

Airports Council International and Open Doors Organization, which advocates for people with disabilities in travel and tourism, hold workshops on accommodating passengers with disabilities.

The International Air Transport Association held a Global Accessibility Symposium last week aimed at improving the air travel experience for passengers with disabilities. Representatives from Delta and other airlines spoke at the symposium, along with advocacy groups and airport representatives.