​Reeve Summit Panel Envisions the Future of Air Travel

Posted by Reeve Staff in Daily Dose on October 11, 2022 # Reeve Summit

What will it take to make air travel safe for people with disabilities? Join the discussion at the Reeve Summit 2022: Where Care, Cure and Community Connect

Engracia Figueroa didn’t ask to be a champion for improving air travel for people with disabilities. She just wanted to get home.

Join The Future of Air Travel panel discussion at the Reeve Summit Oct. 13-14. Register now!

The long-time disability-rights activist, who used a wheelchair due to a spinal cord injury and left leg amputation, was returning from a rally in Washington where she was pushing for federal investments in home- and community-based services when her $30,000 custom-designed power wheelchair was damaged by United Airlines, rendering it unusable. Five hours in a broken loaner chair reopened a pressure sore and triggered a downward spiral of health crises that was exacerbated by months without her specially fitted chair, while she fought United to replace it. On October 31, 2021, the battle ended. Figueroa died after an emergency surgery due to an infection that had spread to her hip bone. What should have been a routine flight home indirectly ended the life of a vibrant and beloved activist and community leader.

Figueroa’s story is a wrenching reminder that there is no such thing as a routine flight for a person with a disability, and especially one who relies on a wheelchair or scooter for mobility. All too often, the “routine” involves bodily harm from unskilled transfers and loss or damage to one’s mobility device.

Changing the Status Quo for Air Travelers with Disabilities

Kelly Buckland, the disability policy advisor in the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), Office of the Secretary, knows the drill all too well. In a recent interview, he said he was “surprised that nothing went wrong” on the flight he just completed, because he’s come to expect bodily harm, wheelchair damage, or both. A long-time advocate for disability rights and former director of the National Council on Independent Living, Buckland will speak at a panel discussion during the Reeve Summit 2022 (Oct. 13-14 in Washington, DC) about efforts to change the all-too-inadequate status quo for air travelers with disabilities.

“People get injured and die,” he says, pointing to statistics from the Paralyzed Veterans of American (PVA). “The PVA survey showed that about a third of the people who are being transferred [during air travel] are actually dropped by the people who do this. They get injured, and some of those injuries are life threatening.”

Twenty-Eight Wheelchairs Damaged Every Day

Also joining the panel discussion will be Heather Ansley, associate executive director of government relations for the PVA, who has led the organization’s efforts to call attention to inadequacies in the current system and make air travel less risky for people with disabilities. Thanks to recently enacted rules that require airlines to report wheelchair damage, loss, or delays, we know that at least 28 wheelchairs are damaged or destroyed by U.S. airlines every day. While these reporting requirements have helped illuminate the scope of the problem, Ansley says “what gets reported is probably only the tip of the iceberg.”

The PVA is pushing for federal legislation to strengthen air travel laws, which are covered by the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) and not the Americans with Disability Act (ADA). Because of the way the laws were written, the ACAA doesn’t have the teeth that the ADA does in terms of enforcement or private redress through litigation (called “private right to action”). Barring an amendment to the ACAA – unlikely in the political clime of the moment -- the focus is to have disability-specific rules written into the next FAA reauthorization act, which comes up in fall of 2023. One priority, long in the making and inching forward, is to install securement devices in airplanes that allow wheelchair users to board with their own chair if they prefer.

‘Once-in-a-Generation Opportunity’

At the DOT, Buckland, the disability policy advisor, sees potential for lasting change in legislation such as the infrastructure and jobs acts, which are providing billions of dollars for investments in transportation infrastructure, including trains, buses, airplanes, and their terminals.

“It’s a once-in-a-generation opportunity to change transportation for people with disabilities,” Buckland says. “We are really going to change the built environment more than in any past generation probably back to Eisenhower. And now we have a law in place that requires it to be accessible when we do it. If we can make sure people follow the law, we're going to make a huge difference.”

Know Your Rights, File Complaints

In the meantime, his advice for travelers with disabilities is to “prepare for the worst and hope for the best.” Communicate in advance and often with the airline to alert them to your needs and your mobility equipment, and understand your rights. In July the DOT published a Passengers with Disabilities Bill of Rights listing 10 rights and responsibilities; Ansley says airlines are in the process of training their employees about them.

“Be aware of your rights and advocate for yourself,” Ansley says. She also stresses the importance of preparing as best as possible in advance of a flight and communicating as much information as possible with the airline about their specific process and your specific condition and needs. The PVA’s website has more tips, tools and resources for accessible air travel for PWD.

“If something goes wrong, file those complaints,” Ansley adds. You can file online fairly simply. Filing a complaint is important to enable the DOT to track trends and hold airlines accountable. The DOT is required to investigate all complaints. “If they start to see that a lot of people are filing complaints about X against X airlines that can raise flags that then get people's attention,” she says.

Register for the Reeve Summit to join the discussion at The Future of Air Travel panel.

The Future of Air Travel for People with Disabilities: Creating an Equitable Experience

Thursday, Oct. 13; 3:30-4:30

Moderator: Kim Beer, Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation

Session Participants:

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