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U.S. Airlines Are Mishandling More Wheelchairs as Air Travel Increases

Posted on December 14, 2021
Article written by
Victoria Menard

  • Since the start of 2021, U.S. airlines have mishandled customers’ wheelchairs and mobility scooters at an increasingly higher rate.
  • As more people have started flying this year, the rate of mishandling has increased from 1.21 percent in January — around six per day — to 1.41 percent — 26 per day — in August.
  • Proponents of improved airplane accessibility — including Illinois U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, who relies on a wheelchair — urge others to view mobility aids like wheelchairs as parts of the user’s body.

As more Americans have resumed air travel this year, U.S. airlines have increasingly mishandled passengers’ checked wheelchairs and mobility scooters. U.S. airlines reported 811 incidents of “mishandled” in August of this year, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Oct. 2021 Air Travel Consumer Report — an average of 26 per day. The total number of mishandlings in January was 196, around six per day.

Overall, U.S. airlines reported mishandling 1.21 percent of 16,195 wheelchairs and mobility scooters checked by passengers last January. By April, the rate jumped to 1.13 percent of 37,635 checked wheelchairs and scooters, an average of around 14 per day. The most recent data for August shows a mishandling rate of 1.41 among U.S. airlines, more than 26 per day among 57,489 wheelchairs and scooters.

The Consequences of Broken Wheelchairs

These mishandlings are not without consequence. On Oct. 31, disability activist Engracia Figueroa died after complications from a pressure sore that became infected. The sore was exacerbated by a loaner chair Figueroa was forced to use for five hours after her $30,000 custom wheelchair was destroyed by United Airlines, reported Forbes.

Figueroa’s death comes less than one year after model and disability advocate Bri Scalesse posted a viral TikTok video in May 2020. The TikTok shows her friend, disability advocate and influencer GG deFiebre, pleading with Delta Airlines staff after her wheelchair was broken.

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This past July, Scalesse faced the same burden when her own wheelchair was also broken by Delta Air Lines, reported Insider.

According to the Department of Transportation data, the Delta Air Lines and United Airline networks have consistently been among the top five airlines with the lowest percentage of mishandlings this year. Spirit Airlines and JetBlue Airways most often had the highest percentages of mishandlings — including 4.46 percent and 6.5 percent respectively in August.

Not Just an Inconvenience, a Loss of Independence

Scalesse underscored to Business Insider the vitality of custom wheelchairs to those who need them. “I think that's something that people don’t realize is our skin is so reliant on the cushions that we sit on and the way that our bodies fit. If you’re sitting on the wrong thing for even four days, you’re going to have a sore — and that can then literally threaten your life.” This was the case for Figueroa.

Activists and advocates have taken notice of the challenging — and often dangerous — reality of flying with a disability. Sen. Duckworth, who lost her legs while serving in the Iraq war, is one of many who urge a transition in the narrative. Rather than framing it as wheelchairs being broken, she told Insider these mobility devices should be considered parts of the body that are being destroyed.

“When you break my wheelchair, or lose my wheelchair, you’ve taken away my legs,” stated Sen. Duckworth, who has reported losing her mobility in this way every three to four flights.

In hopes of preserving the mobility of those traveling with disabilities, Sen. Duckworth introduced a policy in 2018 forcing airlines to report broken wheelchairs, as well as other similar incidents, to the Civil Aviation Authority. In the future, she hopes that airplanes will be required to meet clear accessibility standards such that people living with disabilities can comfortably onboard and deplane, use the bathroom, and sit on the plane without having to stow their wheelchairs.

“I know from personal experience that when an airline damages a wheelchair, it is more than a simple inconvenience — it's a complete loss of mobility and independence. It was the equivalent of taking my legs away from me again. No air traveler should be left in the lurch, immobile on a plane,” Sen. Duckworth said in a 2018 statement.

All updates must be accompanied by text or a picture.
Victoria Menard is a writer at MyHealthTeam. Learn more about her here.

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