Airlines Have To Track Damaged Bags, But Not Damaged Wheelchairs — And A Veterans Group Is Suing Over It

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You can track how an airline handles missing or damaged luggage, so shouldn’t you be able to find the data about how carriers deal with wheelchairs? A new rule that would mandate airlines to report information on wheelchairs and scooters in the same way they track other luggage has now been delayed, prompting a group of veterans to sue the Department of Transportation.

DOT published a rule [PDF] in Nov. 2016 that said airlines operating in the U.S. would have to begin reporting when they lost or damaged mobility devices, with a compliance deadline of Jan. 1, 2018. But then in March, DOT pushed that date back to Jan. 1, 2019.

This week, Paralyzed Veterans of America sued [PDF] over the delay, claiming that the administration had rolled back the rule without seeking input from people with disabilities.

“The sole stated rationale for this delay was two letters and an email received from airline companies citing a purported regulatory freeze by the Administration and unspecified ‘challenges’ meeting the 2018 compliance date,” the lawsuit reads. “The airlines in their correspondence did not specify any specific challenges encountered. DOT did not seek any public comment, and the new final rule is bereft of any explanation for how DOT determined that a delay in the compliance date was warranted or whether and how it assessed the delay’s impact on air travelers with disabilities.”

The complaint claims that delaying the rule will harm thousands of paralyzed veterans and “countless other Americans with mobility impairments.” Mishandling of wheelchairs and scooters is a “significant impediment” to air travel for people who rely on such services, the suit says: The prospect of loss, damage, or delay of these devices could lead to widespread reluctance to travel by air.

Once the wheelchair rule is in effect, it would ensure that travelers would know which airlines are more likely to mishandle their assistive devices and incentivize airlines to handle devices properly, the lawsuit says.

“Wheelchairs are not a luxury. It’s just like having your legs end up in one city when you land in another, if you can imagine that,” said the group’s president, David Zurfluh, in a statement. “Wheelchairs replace functionality and provide independence. Having your only means of leaving the plane get lost or damaged is demoralizing.”

He adds that people with disabilities pay the same prices for travel, “so their experience should be as dignified and as comfortable as everyone else’s. This is especially true for those whose missing limbs and paralysis were the result of military service.”

Along with its complaint, the group filed a motion to reinstate the rule’s original effective date.

A DOT spokesperson told Consumerist the agency doesn’t comment on ongoing litigation.