Airline barred congressman from flying twice because he’s in a wheelchair

Rep Jim Langevin never made it past the check-in counter for a recent flight out of Boston after the airline refused to let him bring his lithium-battery powered wheelchair onto the flight.

For the Democratic congressman, who is the first quadriplegic ever elected to Congress, this isn’t the first time he’s encountered this frustrating and preventable blockade.

While flying back to his home in Rhode Island, Mr Langevin again found his mobility device being flagged when he was at an airport Washington DC.

Having had that previous experience burned into his memory, Mr Langevin says that he took additional measures ahead of his scheduled flight out of Boston to a military base in Italy, telling NBC 10 that he’d even had military officials call the airline ahead of time to forewarn them about the congressman’s iBot wheelchair.

Even with those precautionary measures, however, Mr Langevin didn’t end up making his flight and was forced to leave behind his light-weight Federal Aviation Administration-approved chair for the later flight he did manage to catch several hours after his original planned departure.

“The ticket agent would not allow the chair to travel, saying the lithium-ion batteries weren’t going to be allowed on the plane,” Mr Langevin told NBC 10 News.

Mr Langevin’s electric-powered wheelchair, the iBot, is powered by lithium-ion batteries, and the device itself has been given the green light by both the FAA and international aviation bodies.

Airline employees with Lufthansa, however, wouldn’t budge from their position, wrongly stating that the chair’s batteries were at risk of overheating and catching on fire.

“[We went] through a bunch of hoops and going back and forth, [the Lufthansa employees] just refused to budge,” he said, adding that he even spoke with the operations manager at the airport, who informed him that “they don’t care what the FAA regulations are, these are what their safety protocols are, and they weren’t going to allow it fly”.

Mr Langevin says that he even got the inventor of the mobility device on the phone to talk the issue through with employees at the gate, but those efforts proved fruitless.

“Unfortunately, I missed my flight,” the congressman said in an interview with NBC 10 after the prolonged debacle.

“What’s outrageous is that lithium-ion batteries are going to become more and more prevalent in people using them because they’re lighter weight and they last a lot longer,” the Democrat from Rhode Island added.

Rep Jim Langevin of Rhode Island said to NBC 10 that he wasn’t allowed to board a flight from Boston to Italy because the airline said his electric wheelchair’s batteries were a safety hazard

(NBC 10/video screengrab)

iBots and other electric wheelchairs that rely on lithium-ion batteries are indeed becoming increasingly popular, both because of their ability to last longer on a single charge and decrease the overall weight of a mobility device.

But airlines and their employees haven’t caught up with the new technology, with some still citing the batteries – which have been approved by the FAA for travel on planes – as a safety hazard.

For Mr Langevin, this misunderstanding amounted to several hours of lost travel time and a delay that would’ve likely not occurred had there been up-to-date training on electric wheelchairs like his, he argued.

“Instead of landing at one airport [in Italy], we landed at another one that was three hours away and had to drive overnight to an area close to the military bases,” the lawmaker said.

He was able to board a flight that left later in the day, but only after a staffer travelled the hours-drive back to his home to retrieve a different wheelchair that didn’t include the at issue batteries.

“Airlines need to catch up to the safety protocols outlined by the FAA,” he added.

Disability experts have long been arguing for a change to the transportation industry when it comes to persons who are differently abled trying to access the services that were so clearly not designed with them in mind.

For instance, in just May of this year, disability-related complaints filed with the Transportation Department hit 158, which was more than double what it was in 2019.

And though there isn’t data that shows how many other people across the country have, like Mr Langevin, been told they cannot board a flight because of the lithium batteries used in their devices, there were 310 disability-related complaints filed with the Transportation Department in 2018 about airlines refusing to let passengers board flight. Of those more than 300 complaints, 44 were marked as being related to paraplegics, quadriplegics, other types of wheelchair users and other assistive-device users.

The US Secretary of Transportation has acknowledged as much recently that the aviation industry is a far cry from where it should be for 2022 standards.

“Practically everyone who uses a wheelchair and flies, including colleagues of mine here at the DOT, has a troubling story about an airline experience,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said during an event marking the anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act on July 26. “Many have far more than one.”

“No other form of transportation — trains, buses, boats — forces you to give up your mobility device when you board. The same ought to be true of airlines,” Mr Buttigieg said. “So in the months and years ahead we plan to work toward a new rule that will allow passengers to stay in their personal wheelchairs when they fly. We know this won’t happen overnight, but it is a goal that we have to work to fulfil.”

Mr Langevin has spearheaded legislation, alongside Democratic Sen Tammy Baldwin, that would increase protections for passengers flying with disabilities and would give them the right to sue airlines if they feel they’re being trampled on.

“Although we have made progress in the last 35 years to address barriers in plane travel for people with disabilities, I know personally that challenges remain,” wrote Rep Langevin when introducing the Air Carrier Access Amendments Act in 2019. “This critical legislation presents an opportunity to build upon the Air Carrier Access Act by improving accessibility, enhancing assistance, and ensuring greater civil rights protections.”

In an emailed statement to The Washington Post on the incident, a spokesperson for Lufthansa said that the Germany airline was “regretful” over the incident.

“At times, there have been challenges when it comes to customers traveling with lithium batteries, as there are complex and detailed rules and regulations related to this,” the spokesperson said to The Post. “We apologize for the error made due to the misinterpretation of the technical guidelines.”

Employees with the airline, the spokesperson added, would also be undergoing a “comprehensive review” of guidelines around lithium batteries to prevent similar incidents.

The Independent contacted both Lufthansa and Mr Langevin for comment on the recent incident but did not hear back immediately.

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