September 06, 2023

How To Fix U.S. Air Travel for Passengers With Disabilities | Opinion

Source: Newsweek


When Kwaku Agyeman, a wheelchair agent at D.C.'s Reagan National Airport, first started his job 10 years ago, he was paid only $5.65 per hour, relying on tips to bring his salary up to the minimum wage. In the years since, his working conditions have hardly improved. He's not alone. Workers like Kwaku have seen their wages drop and benefits like health care disappear over the past decade, all while performing essential jobs like transporting baggage, providing food service, and assisting those who use wheelchairs. As a result, this workforce—which is largely comprised by people of color—often experiences short-staffing, high turnover, inadequate equipment, and improper training.

While airport workers are crucial to aviation travel, they are often treated as expendable. Services from wheelchair agents are supposed to be free for folks with disabilities, but Kwaku had to rely on passengers' generosity to help him make ends meet. Such conditions—in which workers are not provided the training and wages they deserve—make it harder for Kwaku and his colleagues to do their jobs and can hurt passengers. As Kwaku recently told disability rights advocates, "Airport workers across the country are fighting because we know our dignity is intertwined with yours." 

Over the last year, thousands of passengers have experienced the decline of airline service, from the turmoil of flight delays and continual cancellations to a persistent lack of accessibility. And for those with mobility disabilities—including the 5.5 million adults who use wheelchairs in the United States—these pervasive problems can put their health and safety at risk.

As members of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, we regularly hear from our constituents with disabilities about the challenges they face when trying to travel. For many of these people, it's simply safer to avoid air travel altogether than deal with a damaged wheelchair or not receive appropriate accommodations, like sitting with a companion who can assist them during a flight. 

After all, travel isn't just risky for passengers with disabilities—it can be debilitating, too, as a broken wheelchair can quite literally bring the user's life to a halt. Would you feel comfortable flying knowing there's a real risk that an airline could end up breaking your legs? That's what a broken wheelchair can mean to those who rely on them to get around. According to data from the Department of Transportation, from December 2018 to March 2022, airlines reported 20,000 "lost, damaged or completely destroyed" wheelchairs and scooters. An average of about 1,000 more have since been added to that total monthly. 

It is imperative that we invest in protecting passengers—and to do that, we must invest in the workers who are integral to assisting them. That's why we reintroduced the Good Jobs for Good Airports Act to help ensure that every airport service job is a good job that puts workers on a path to livable wages and benefits while reducing turnover and improving training, thereby creating a smoother, safer, more accessible travel experience for all. 

No matter how often you travel, where you live or whether you walk or roll through your local airport, every one of us wants to be treated with dignity and respect when we fly. But it just is not possible to have a world class air travel system that's accessible to all without an empowered, well-paid, well-trained, and stable aviation workforce, from pilots to passenger service agents to cabin cleaners. To us, it's obvious that it is past time that we actually look out and speak up for these workers by including the Good Jobs for Good Airports Act in this year's FAA reauthorization bill. 

By:  Tammy Duckworth, Edward J. Markey, Tammy Baldwin