WASHINGTON — Airlines damaged at least 701 wheelchairs and motorized scooters in a single month — an average of more than 25 a day, according to the first such data reported by the U.S. Department of Transportation under a new law championed by Sen. Tammy Duckworth.

Among the hundreds of wheelchairs damaged between Dec. 4 and 31 last year was one belonging to Duckworth, an Illinois Democrat and combat veteran and double amputee. She pushed for the law after her own wheelchair was damaged multiple times during airline travel.

December was the first month airlines had to report publicly how many customers’ wheelchairs or scooters they broke or lost.

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The numbers Duckworth’s office announced late last week showed the nationwide scope of the problem for the first time, and also give travelers a sense of which airlines were the worst offenders during that time period.

The airlines that reported the largest percentage of wheelchairs mishandled in December were Envoy Air — a regional carrier for American Airlines — with 14.6 percent, American Airlines with 7.2 percent and Southwest Airlines with 6.4 percent.

“Every airline passenger deserves to be treated with dignity and respect, but too often they aren’t,” Duckworth said in a statement.

Duckworth said she knows from personal experience that when an airline damages a wheelchair, it is not just inconvenient for a traveler like her. It’s a complete loss of independence.

“It was the equivalent of taking my legs away from me again,” Duckworth said. “No air traveler should be left in the lurch, immobile on a plane.”

Former President Barack Obama’s administration first proposed a rule requiring airlines to provide the Department of Transportation with monthly reports on how many wheelchairs and motorized scooters they break or mishandle.

But President Donald Trump’s administration delayed the rule’s implementation in March 2017.

Duckworth responded by authoring an amendment that required the Department of Transportation to implement the rule within 60 days. The amendment was included in the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act and became law in October 2018.

Airlines say they’re working on improving the travel experience for customers who use wheelchairs or scooters.

“Our goal is to ensure customers of all abilities have a positive travel experience and we strive to do better every day,” said Adam Simmons, a spokesman for Envoy Air Inc. “We’ve taken a number of steps to meet the new reporting requirements and continue to improve our processes to ensure our team members have the tools they need to properly handle and track wheelchairs and assistive devices.”

© 2019 McClatchy Washington Bureau
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