PROVIDENCE — US Representative Jim Langevin had gotten all the travel arrangements settled and was at Logan Airport in plenty of time for his flight to Italy to visit American military bases in August as part of a congressional delegation.
There was just one problem: When the Rhode Island Democrat tried to check in, the ticket agent for Lufthansa told him he couldn’t bring his iBOT wheelchair on the flight. The ticket agent said the lithium ion batteries went against the airline’s policies, which are intended to prevent overheating and fires. The operations manager said the same thing.
After at least a half an hour of frustration, they wouldn’t budge — even though the Department of Defense had already called ahead to approve the chair, and even after Langevin put the ticket agent on the phone with the inventor of the iBOT to confirm that it met Federal Aviation Administration guidelines. Those guidelines didn’t matter, Lufthansa’s rep said, according to Langevin — the airlines could set their own policies, and the chair wasn’t going to fly.
Langevin, who is the first quadriplegic elected to Congress, ended up having to get a staff member to bring a different wheelchair from his home in North Providence to the airport. That one had dry-cell batteries. He also had to take a different flight on a different airline to a different destination in Italy, lengthening a trip that was part of his congressional oversight duties. It was almost midnight before he finally got to his hotel after a travel ordeal caused by the airline’s refusal to accept the FAA’s guidelines for his wheelchair.
“They just refused to listen to reason,” said Langevin, a long-serving Democrat who’s in his last term before retirement. “It was just really disappointing how Lufthansa handled this.”
The German airline Lufthansa, in an emailed statement, said it apologized “for the error made due to the misinterpretation of the technical guidelines.” The airline cited “complex and detailed” rules related to traveling with lithium batteries. Its employees would be going through a comprehensive review of those rules, Lufthansa said.
“I’m going to accept the apology if they fix the problem going forward,” Langevin told the Globe. “This isn’t about me. This is about everyone who travels who needs a mobility device to get around, and who might have lithium ion batteries in their chair.”
This situation has happened to him one other time, on a flight from D.C. to Rhode Island, Langevin said. In that situation, the airline let him on a later flight, and had an all-hands-on-deck meeting to address the problem.
Lithium ion batteries are lighter and can last longer than other types of batteries. Because of overheating and fire concerns, FAA regulations limit their size (The iBOT wheelchair Langevin uses is under that limit) and where they can be stowed. People with disabilities have reported “unpredictable” and inconsistent application of the rules by airlines, according to the Washington Post.
Airlines have failed to take into account that not all lithium ion batteries are created equal, Langevin said — the Chinese knockoff hoverboards that have caught fire aren’t the same as his wheelchair.
“It’s incredibly frustrating when you’ve got the documentation,” Langevin said. “I’d done my due diligence.”
Langevin said there could be a legislative fix to the broader issue of getting on airplanes: His proposed Air Carrier Access Amendments Act, which would not just allow but mandate the FAA to fine airlines for violating people’s rights or discriminating against them. It would also give people the right to go to court over denial of access, something he said can’t currently happen now.
“This is the problem — without a private right of action in some cases, or the real threat of a fine, there is going to be no incentive for the airlines to step up and dot their I’s and cross their T’s,” Langevin said.
“Too many people have been affected by this,” he said. “We need to fix this problem once and for all.”