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New Report Shows Airlines Break 25 Wheelchairs Every Day

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Sometimes the news isn’t as straightforward as it’s made to seem. Karin Willison, The Mighty’s Disability Editor, explains what to keep in mind if you see this topic or similar stories in your newsfeed. This is The Mighty Takeaway.

Update: The first Department of Transportation data on airline mishandling of mobility devices has revealed that 701 wheelchairs and mobility scooters were reported damaged in less than a month, from December 4 to December 31, 2018. That’s an average of over 25 wheelchairs damaged per day.

The data also tracks the damage rate per airline. The top three airlines with the most broken wheelchairs were Envoy Air (a division of American Airlines) with 14.6 percent, American Airlines with 7.2 percent, and Southwest airlines with 6.4 percent. These statistics show that wheelchairs are far more likely to be mishandled than other forms of baggage. For example, Envoy Air mishandled only .5 percent of general baggage, but nearly 15 percent of wheelchairs and scooters.

While it’s never fun to lose your suitcase or have it damaged in transit, clothing and toiletries can be easily replaced. Wheelchairs cost thousands of dollars to repair and tens of thousands of dollars to replace, and people who need them often end up trapped at home and missing work or school while waiting months for airlines to process claims and repair shops to fix the damage.

Airlines routinely treat wheelchairs with far less care than they treat baggage with far less value. And now we have the numbers to prove it.

The skies could soon become a lot friendlier for travelers with disabilities. After years of pushback from the airline industry, the disability community is getting evidence to prove something we’ve known for a long time: our wheelchairs and other mobility devices are routinely broken during air travel.

Beginning December 4, 2018, airlines are now required to track data on lost or damaged wheelchairs, scooters and other mobility equipment — and make the results public. Originally passed by the Obama administration, the regulations were scheduled to go into effect a year ago, but the airline industry put pressure on the Trump administration to delay them. Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), who uses a wheelchair due to injuries sustained in the Iraq War, fought for the requirement to be included in the latest FAA re-authorization bill. The first report is expected to be released in early February. Duckworth told Mother Jones magazine, “I think we’re going to see some pretty dismal numbers.” I think she’s right.

Many non-disabled people don’t know or think about how mobility equipment is handled when people with disabilities fly on airplanes. They may not realize that air travel is the only form of mass transportation where people with disabilities cannot remain in our wheelchairs. Instead, the vast majority of wheelchairs and scooters must be stowed in the cargo hold, where they are at high risk of being damaged during loading and transit. As you can see in this video by my fellow travel blogger John Morris, large groups of baggage handlers regularly struggle to lift a single power chair — not surprising considering they typically weigh 200-450 pounds.

As a wheelchair travel blogger, I’ve lost count of the number of people who have contacted me to share their horror stories about wheelchairs being broken by airlines. I’m disappointed, but never surprised, because it happened to me too. Years ago, when I used to fly, my power wheelchair was a practically indestructible hunk of metal I affectionately referred to as The Tank. I would move pianos with The Tank and play in the spray from the garden hose, and it kept on zooming. Even so, it was damaged numerous times by various airlines, with the worst incident involving a broken drive motor. The airline tried to claim they weren’t responsible, but the repair company determined that the damage occurred because of heavy cargo pushing against the wheelchair during flight, forcing the wheels to turn when the motor had locked them in place.

After 10 years of being battered by airlines (and my own hijinks, to be fair) I had to retire The Tank. These days I have a standing wheelchair, which is a bit like an exoskeleton on wheels. It has numerous motors for standing, tilt, recline and elevation, and it took a yearlong battle to get insurance to cover the $40,000 cost. Despite handling it with relative care (my piano moving and sprinkler dancing days are in the past) the footrest motor has broken twice already. I can’t even imagine what would happen if it was put in an airplane cargo hold and had a stack of suitcases slam into it at 38,000 feet, or was dropped onto the tarmac because a pair of baggage handlers thought “we can lift this!” only to find out it weighs 440 pounds.

Wheelchairs with power seating functions such as tilt, recline and elevate are widely used by people with more severe physical disabilities like me. If our wheelchairs are broken, it’s the equivalent of breaking our bodies; we’ll be stuck in bed without them. They have custom seating made for our unique sizes and physical limitations. There’s no wheelchair corner store where you can pick up a replacement at 3 a.m. Getting even standard replacement parts can take weeks, and those parts can cost thousands of dollars. It’s difficult to get insurance to cover repairs under the best of circumstances, and if an airline breaks a wheelchair, the insurance company will almost certainly expect them to pay. If the airline denies responsibility, you end up with two corporations arguing with each other, all the while leaving you trapped without mobility.

With the risk and potential impact of a broken wheelchair so high, is it surprising that many people with disabilities (including myself) don’t fly at all? Many of us would like to fly, but we can’t take the chance. And to add insult to injury, when we share our fears and past experiences, people often dismiss them. “I know it’s scary, but don’t let fear stop you,” they’ll say. If you knew there was even a 10 percent chance somebody would break your legs if you got on a plane, and you’d have to pay thousands in medical bills because they denied responsibility for their actions, wouldn’t you skip air travel too?

Despite media attention and advocacy on the part of the disability community, the epidemic of wheelchairs and scooters being damaged during air travel has gone on for years. Without statistics to prove how severe the problem actually is, airlines have been able to falsely claim damage to mobility equipment is rare. It has been cheaper for them to deny most cases of mishandling and quietly pay for the most egregious ones, instead of addressing the root causes of the problem. Meanwhile, thousands of disabled air travelers have had their vacations and business trips ruined, and even spent weeks or months stuck in bed while the airlines refuse to acknowledge the harm they caused.

For too long, this reality we know to be true has been dismissed as fear, rumor and anecdotal evidence. Now we have the numbers to back it up. Please join the disability community in being outraged and demanding change. It’s time to hold airlines accountable for lost and broken mobility devices, demand that baggage handlers be trained to handle equipment properly and require airplane manufacturers to make passenger cabins accessible so we can stay in our wheelchairs during flight.

People with disabilities should have the right to access air travel just like everyone else. We shouldn’t have to put our safety and mobility at risk.

Getty image by Manuel F-O.

Originally published: January 4, 2019
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