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Paralyzed Veterans Vs. Airlines


For a passenger who uses a wheelchair, an airline mishandling checked items can be more than just an inconvenience. A new rule that was supposed to make airlines report how often they lose or damage wheelchairs has been put on hold, though. NPR's Quil Lawrence reports on an effort to force that rule into effect.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: The last time Larry Dodson got off a plane, his wheelchair did not.

LARRY DODSON: Now how they can misplace a 350 pound power wheelchair is beyond me, but they did.

LAWRENCE: Dodson is a Vietnam vet. He's quadriplegic.

DODSON: And this was even though this flight was a direct flight. I saw the wheelchair go on the plane. We didn't stop anywhere. And they couldn't find it when we got to my final destination.

LAWRENCE: This wasn't the first time. Dodson says his chair has been lost or damaged repeatedly. And it's not just a nuisance - the airline's wheelchairs can be painful.

DODSON: So after spending nearly an hour in these unstable chairs, being transferred repeatedly by the airline staff, it left me with a lot of sores that took three days of bed rest to get healed.

LAWRENCE: Dodson is the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit filed by the group Paralyzed Veterans of America against the Department of Transportation. The suit claims that after years of negotiations with the airline industry, a rule was hammered out to require carriers to keep track of and report how often they lose or damage wheelchairs. The rule was finalized last year and gave the airlines until January 2018 to comply.

But on his first day in office, President Donald Trump announced a government-wide freeze on new regulations. And the lobbying group, Airlines for America, asked the Department of Transportation in an email to delay the rule for a year, quote, "in the spirit of the regulatory freeze." Airlines for America declined an interview but said in an email that the delay was requested to give carriers, quote, "adequate time to plan, coordinate and properly implement the complex final rule."

A Department of Transportation spokesperson also declined an interview but said the department granted the delay to give the carriers adequate time until 2019. Paralyzed Veterans of America says there was no consultation about the delay. Larry Dodson says he and tens of thousands of others are stuck for an extra year wondering which airlines have a good or bad record for how they treat people who use wheelchairs.

DODSON: If I did not have that wheelchair to get around, I'd be lying in bed. So these chairs are important. And for the airlines to treat them as if they're just another piece of luggage is a tragedy.

LAWRENCE: The U.S. district judge hearing the case has put it on a fast schedule, so it may be decided before the rule would have taken effect in January. Quil Lawrence, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.

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