Air Travel From a Wheelchair

Wheelchair users hate to fly. Here’s why

By Jessica Monsell

If you had ever been forced to crawl up a flight of stairs by an airline employee, you could easily understand why so many passengers with disabilities stay off the airlines.

It happened to Liane Henry Morran, after landing in Chicago on her Delta flight from Winnipeg.

“It was a small plane with no jet bridge,” Morran recalls. “Instead of going down slippery stairs, they put me in a food elevator, and then forced me to crawl up a flight of stairs to the terminal, to take a cart to my next gate. I was treated worse than an animal.”

While such extreme cases of mistreatment toward passengers with disabilities may be rare, the less extreme cases may be more common, and the Department of Transportation (DOT) is now starting to require airlines to quantify some of these unfortunate realities.

Specifically, the DOT recently published a new rule that airlines must now report incidents of damage to wheelchairs and scooters separate from incidents of damage to checked luggage. In the past, airline passengers who use wheelchairs had no information on the frequency of damage to wheelchairs, because airline reports to the DOT did not differentiate between damage to mobility devices and damage to luggage.

You might not think such a rule is controversial, but nestled in the background of the rule were comments in support and opposition from various interested parties, including Airlines 4 America (A4A), the trade organization that represents major airlines. When the rule was first proposed, A4A submitted a comment that the DOT has “no basis for concluding that passengers with disabilities are reluctant to travel by air due to wheelchair mishandling, and that the proposal lacked a public policy justification.”

To which I say, “Really?”

To test the A4A theory that wheelchair users are not reluctant to fly, I connected with wheelchair users on social media to ask what their airline experience has been, and the response was overwhelming. Dozens of wheelchair users recounted their horror stories, while a few said they hadn’t had problems. Those few, however, consider themselves “lucky,” knowing the challenges faced.

Damage to wheelchairs isn’t the only thing keeping would-be passengers off planes, but it ranks high on the list of concerns. If you think about it, it makes sense: Air travel is the one and only event where wheelchair users must surrender their mobility equipment. And when you consider that many wheelchairs are power-operated, high-end, custom-made, medically necessary devices, you can understand the anxiety one gets in trusting an airline to safeguard it.

“Handled like a sack of potatoes”

“The airlines are an absolute disgrace,” says Adrienne Barlow, a retired climatologist from Gig Harbor, Wash.

Barlow flies frequently on Alaska Airlines, and takes before and after pictures of her wheelchair to ensure the airline is held accountable for any damage. She laments that when she flies, she often finds her wheelchair “handled like a sack of potatoes.” Barlow has seen her chair thrown onto conveyor belts, found upside down or tossed on the ground. She travels with a repair kit and has had her prescribed and medically necessary wheelchair damaged many times.

“I assume that every time I fly, I will have to set aside time to take care of repairs once I return home,” she says. “And I always report the incident before I leave the airport.”

“1,000-mile rule”

Bill Peace, a professor at Syracuse University, says his wheelchair has been “damaged in every way humanly possible” by the airlines. Peace says he has never once been reimbursed for repairs, and considers the airlines to be “openly hostile” to wheelchair users.

For this reason, Peace has instituted a “1,000-mile rule,” meaning that if he has to travel less than 1,000 miles, he drives or takes Amtrak. When I pointed out that he is opting for a mode of transportation that is statistically more dangerous, he agrees there is a tradeoff. But he adds, “Flying is an invitation for abuse of all sorts, physical and social.”

“Waited 5 hours”

But damage isn’t the only thing that can go wrong when an airline accepts a wheelchair. A couple of years ago, Sylvia Wheeler, whose six-year-old granddaughter relies on a power chair, arrived in Washington, D.C., only to learn her granddaughter’s chair was “lost.”

“When we changed planes in Chicago, American Eagle didn’t take it off the [first] plane, so it didn’t arrive in D.C.,” Wheeler recalls. “We had to wait five hours for her wheelchair to arrive.”

Wheeler, a habitation instructor from Conway, Ark., was traveling to Washington to meet members of Congress at a conference for families living with Spinal Muscular Atrophy, which currently has no cure. The conference draws medical professionals, researchers and families affected by the disease to discuss treatment developments and options, and it gives families emotional support so they don’t cope with the rare disease in isolation.

Despite the benefits afforded by air travel, the risk of damage to her granddaughter’s wheelchair has since kept them off of planes. “As she has gotten bigger and weaker, it would be a lot harder on her to go without her chair for even a couple of hours,” Wheeler explains. “Insurance is so hard to fight with to get a chair in the first place, so whenever we travel, we go by van. Three or four days on the road is tiring, but it’s better than sacrificing her chair, which costs more than any of our cars.”

“Strapped in like Hannibal”

Just boarding the plane can be a nightmare for passengers with reduced mobility. Brian Bowen, a physician from Vancouver, Wash., says that he flies on the airlines, but not without some anxiety.

Airlines hire contract workers to assist passengers with reduced mobility get to their assigned seats. That process sometimes includes use of an “aisle chair” — a narrow wheelchair designed to transport passengers from the boarding door to a row in the aft section of the plane.

Bowen finds the process unnecessary, and suggests that airlines should reserve the front seats near the door for passengers who use wheelchairs. “It’s a bit humiliating to be strapped in like Hannibal [Lecter] to be transported in the aisle chair,” Bowen writes. “I can get my wheelchair into the front of the plane and transfer to a seat without any problem.”

“An apology and an ice pack”

The boarding process can be a disaster for other reasons, too.

Kate Baize, a self-employed wheelchair user from Effingham, Ill., says she was once injured in the boarding process when airline employees tried to transfer her from the aisle chair to her seat.

“There was no reason for me to need the aisle chair, because I had two caregivers with me, plus I’m petite,” Baize recalls. “The airline agents insisted on using the aisle chair, which I fell from. How is that safer?”

The incident, which occurred years ago on Southwest Airlines, resulted in a sprained ankle. “When I fell, they wanted to help me up, but I refused to let them touch me after that,” she explains. “They apologized and gave me an ice pack.”

“Devastating trip”

Rachel George knows first-hand the physical, financial and emotional risk to traveling on airlines with a wheelchair. Her son’s manual chair was damaged beyond repair on a British Airways flight between London and Orlando.

Her seven-year-old son, Adam, was devastated by the loss of his custom-built chair, without which he cannot get around.

George, of Truro, England, who had flown with her son for a Disney vacation prior to a risky spinal surgery, knew something was terribly wrong when they were reunited with Adam’s chair on arrival in Orlando and could see one of the wheels wasn’t touching the floor.

“The back was bent, the front castors didn’t touch the ground, the lateral support was damaged, and there were many sharp bits on the rims,” George recalls. “Airline employees straightened the back with manual tools at the airport and sent someone out the next day who, with help from my teenaged son, used brute force to get all the wheels back on the ground.”

For the duration of their trip, George and her son had no options but to use the badly damaged chair, putting socks over the sharp edges. The family lost quality vacation time, but there were much greater losses to come.

When the wheelchair company assessed the chair, it was declared a total loss. “It took two months for a replacement chair to be built, during which time my son was immobile.”

The loss of mobility took an emotional toll on her son. “He is terrified of the idea of flying again in case his wheelchair is broken, and gets very upset if people so much as touch his chair in case they break it,” George writes.

British Airways initially told George it was only responsible for damage up to the liability limits for damage to luggage under the Montreal Convention, an international aviation treaty, which are set around $1,500. Eventually, the airline paid for the full replacement of the chair, around $5,000. But the airline tried to get George to sign a non-disclosure agreement in exchange for the reimbursement.

“We explained to BA that we could not sign an agreement that stopped us from telling people anything as people had already asked where his chair was and, because it was bought with fundraised money, we had to be completely honest with those people. Further, British Airways was going to look very bad if we didn’t tell people the airline replaced it.”

British Airways offered George a $1,500 voucher for future travel, but they are in no hurry to use it. “It would be emotionally tough to get my son on a plane right now, and nearly impossible to get on British Airways. He would not trust them with his chair again, and neither would I.”

How the wheelchair was damaged in the first place remains a mystery. British Airways confirmed that a “very detailed investigation” took place following the incident, and there was “no outstanding reason found” as to why the chair was damaged. The airline insists the chair was “correctly secured according to regulations” and properly loaded on the plane.

Precautions in place

Airlines say that they take great care to avoid damage to wheelchairs, for the precise reason that they have to pay for any resulting damage on board. Paul Berry, a spokesman for Spirit Airlines, says that at Spirit, wheelchairs are loaded whenever possible in a separate bin underneath the plane, to prevent other luggage or cargo from falling on the wheelchair. When this option is not available, the airline loads wheelchairs last, in an effort to prevent damage.

Brian Kruse, a spokesman for Delta Air Lines, says that accessibility for reduced mobility passengers is a priority for the company, and he encourages passengers with wheelchairs to contact the airline in advance to find out what options are available to them.

“Most of our aircraft can accommodate some wheelchairs on board, and that space is allocated on a first come, first served basis,” he offers. Kruse explains that chairs that are too large or too heavy to travel in the cabin are stowed in the cargo hold, and loaded in a “last on, first off” fashion. Delta marks them with bright pink tags, and recommends that passengers inspect their wheelchairs and scooters upon arrival to ensure they are returned in the same condition. Passengers who find damage should file a claim immediately, Kruse says, and the airline will pay for the repair, up to and including the full cost of a replacement in the event of a total loss.

While Spirit and Delta would have us believe that damage to wheelchairs is relatively rare, the new DOT reporting requirements will finally bring some transparency to an area of airline operations that until now has been reported only anecdotally.

This year’s reporting rule isn’t the first time airlines have been less than enthusiastic about providing services to passengers with disabilities. In 1990, when amendments to the the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) were proposed, some airlines balked at the idea of providing wheelchair assistance to transport passengers to and between departure gates. Instead, they suggested the service could be provided “when practical,” and that a regulatory requirement wasn’t needed.

Then, the DOT rejected the airlines’ unwillingness to provide these services as a requirement, stating, “The Department does not believe that, under the ACAA, it is appropriate to tell passengers that they must learn to rely on the kindness of strangers. One of the purposes of Part 382 always has been, and remains, to create legally enforceable expectations upon which passengers with disabilities can consistently depend. Reliance on purely voluntary action by carriers does not achieve this objective.”

The DOT’s latest reporting requirement is designed to help consumers make informed decisions about airline performance. And who knows? Maybe the new data reporting will create a new area for competition among carriers.

Can you imagine an airline advertising campaign that features more luxurious first class cabins and fewer damaged wheelchairs than any other airline? OK. I can’t either.

But it’s about time the airlines, with a nudge from the DOT, begin to recognize that there’s a reason an entire portion of the population is staying off airplanes. And with an increase in reliance on mobility devices as the population ages, it’s a segment too large to continue to ignore.

Are wheelchair users reluctant to fly? Yes, indeed. The good news for airlines is that there’s a lot of room for improvement, and only one way to go from here: up.

planes at terminal

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