What Happens when an Airline Damages a Wheelchair

By GG deFiebre, PhD

Throughout my 12 years of using a wheelchair since my transverse myelitis diagnosis in 2009, I had heard horror stories of people’s wheelchairs and other devices being irreparably damaged by airlines. I had heard stories of wheelchairs being destroyed, dropped, crushed, and even forgotten by airlines. On average, airlines damage 28 wheelchairs a day in the United States. I remember the first time I traveled after my diagnosis; it was a whole new experience. I didn’t know what an aisle chair was, and I didn’t know that I had to give up my wheelchair before boarding the plane (for more information on what it’s like to travel with a wheelchair, check out this article from The Points Guy). I didn’t realize I couldn’t access the bathroom on the plane, and that airlines were governed by an older law than the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Unfortunately, unlike all other forms of transportation, airline travel is regulated by The Air Carrier Access Act from 1986. In March, members of Congress introduced the Air Carrier Access Amendments Act of 2021, which would require aircrafts to be redesigned to include safer storage of wheelchairs and to provide better access on the plane.

In May 2021, after being fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and feeling a bit safer about traveling, two of my friends and I decided to travel from New York City via plane to visit our other two friends in Phoenix, Arizona. All five of us use wheelchairs. I was the last to get off the plane, and immediately upon getting in my wheelchair, I realized something was wrong. My wheel was warped and mangled, and I was unable to roll my chair. I had even put signs on my chair about how to properly lift and store it because I am always worried about it surviving a flight, but clearly these signs were ignored. I immediately started crying. I was devastated. At that point, I didn’t know if it was the wheel or the frame that was broken. All I knew was that it was impossible to push my chair. If it had been the frame, I knew it would take months to get a replacement. My frame is built to my exact measurements and not something you can just buy off the shelf. It is an extension of my body. I knew that I would likely have to fight to get the wheel replaced. I’m a quadriplegic and rely on power-assist wheels. I can push very short distances with regular wheels, but my power-assist wheels are really the only way I can get around. I am pretty private about crying – very few people have seen me cry. Upon seeing my broken chair, my sobs were uncontrollable, and I didn’t care that it was in front of the entire flight crew and others. I cried as I was lifted onto an airport wheelchair and my wheelchair was lifted onto a cart so it could be rolled to the baggage area where I could make a claim with the airline. I was defeated and devastated and figured we would have to turn around and go back home. My friend, Bri, managed to capture my sobs on her phone via video, and created a TikTok that then went viral.

I was then offered a standard airport/hospital chair that I cannot self-propel or actually use and was told a company would be in contact with me about getting a replacement. The only reason I was able to leave the airport was that my friend Liv had a spare set of manual wheels that I could use to get to our hotel. At that point, I figured we would be confined to a few blocks from our hotel because of how difficult it was for me to push, but at least I wasn’t in a hospital chair. Then, through Liv’s connections, we were able to find someone in Phoenix who had a spare set of the power-assist wheels that I use. She was kind enough to let me borrow her wheel, even allowing me to fly home with it. When I got home, I reached out to my equipment provider in New York City and asked them if they could provide a set of loaner wheels, which they did. At no point did the airline offer me a solution; everything was through my personal connections and my local vendor. Eventually, after around 11 weeks, I finally got my new set of wheels. During that time, Bri flew again, and 6 weeks after my damaged chair incident, Bri’s wheelchair frame was irreparably damaged by the same airline and had to be replaced. Another airline also irreparably damaged Engracia Figueroa’s wheelchair, and tragically, she passed away in October due to complications from injuries she sustained after her custom wheelchair was destroyed last July. Engracia’s life was cut short by the negligence and disregard airlines have for mobility equipment.

I think there is a lack of understanding of how mobility devices serve as an extension of our bodies. A broken mobility device is not an inconvenience – it is a major life-altering event that disrupts our lives. Wheelchair repairs or getting chairs manufactured takes time, which is why ensuring this does not happen in the first place is incredibly important. Airlines should allow wheelchairs onto the plane to allow people to stay in their chairs during flight. Airlines also need to better train employees on how to handle equipment, give them the proper tools to do this safely, and promptly provide reasonable loaners and expedite the manufacturing process as much as possible. This has been an ongoing problem for years and continues to be a problem for those of us who use wheelchairs and other mobility equipment. I have heard from countless people that getting repairs from airline damage usually takes months, and I’ve even heard people say it took years, and even sometimes people were not able to get a replacement at all. If you are interested in supporting The Air Carrier Access Amendments Act, you can sign a petition here. There is so much more that needs to be done to ensure disabled people can fly without fear of their mobility equipment being destroyed in the process.

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