Sign with an image of a person using a wheelchair
A right to mobility in the skies
by Meg Herndon

In April, two women from Iowa who depend on powered wheelchairs found themselves unable to move around freely after American Airlines allegedly lost and damaged their wheelchairs during a flight from Des Moines to Houston.

At the airport, the airline staff told Harlee Drury and Heather Reimers they would have to store their powered wheelchairs in the plane’s cargo hold, and in Dallas—where the two had a layover to get to Houston—the wheelchairs would be transferred to their other plane. This transfer never occurred though, according to Drury and Reimers, and when they finally received their wheelchairs a day after they arrived in Houston, the chairs were damaged.

The two described the time they didn’t have their powered wheelchairs as “infuriating and humiliating,” as they lost the ability to move without hindrance. Using manual wheelchairs loaned from the airline and unable to travel to the hotel they had originally booked, the two managed to make it to a hotel across the street from the airport with help from airline employees. There, they were confined to their beds due to a lack of mobility and had to rely on their friend who was traveling with them to help move them to the bathroom.

The next day back at the airport, their wheelchairs were returned—damaged. Drury’s chair had dents and scratches, and Reimers’ was missing its full control stick panel.

Now the two are suing American Airlines, saying they were “denied independent freedom of movement and basic human dignity for over 12 hours, their powered wheelchairs were damaged and they lost time and money from their vacation,” according to the Iowa Capital Dispatch.

‘All Kinds of Horror Stories’

This story, while upsetting, isn’t surprising to many who are familiar with airlines’ typical treatment of wheelchairs and mobility devices.

“We’ve definitely had a lot of first-hand experience with that,” said Jay Brislin, vice president of Quantum Rehab, a producer of complex rehab technology. “Efficiency is on the top of everyone’s mind, or any company’s mind. A lot of airlines are just trying to move through and make sure that the chair gets loaded. And the next thing you know, you’ve heard all kinds of horror stories.”

Despite a 2021 decline in the number of wheelchairs and scooters being damaged per year, that figure has returned to pre-pandemic numbers, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) 2022 Air Travel Consumer Report, and the mobility community is calling attention to the issue. Nonprofit groups have supported the Air Carrier Access Amendments Act, which protects the rights of passengers with disabilities in air travel. Overseas, the International Air Transit Association issued new guidance this year to help airlines and baggage handlers safely transport mobility aides.

While airlines are required to completely cover repair or replacement expenses for damaged wheelchairs—some of which cost $30,000 or more—the damage is only one part of this issue.

“Wherever that person has landed, they are now without their means of transportation,” Brislin said—which is a real concern, as seen in Drury’s and Reimers’ case.

In an effort to avert the issue, Quantum has begun training at airports on how to correctly handle wheelchairs. This training includes guidance on how to engage and disengage brakes, turning the chair on and off and disconnecting electronics and wires in the proper way. Brislin said even things as simple as bubble wrapping components and making sure a chair is tied down correctly can make a huge difference.

Industry & Advocates Step Up

According to the DOT report, the mishandling of wheelchairs and scooters designed for individuals with disabilities is relatively unusual, but not exactly a rare occurrence.

The report showed in January 2023, 15 U.S. airlines handled 53,251 wheelchairs or scooters—865 of which, or 1.6%, were mishandled. American Airlines was somewhat worse than average, mishandling 136 of 7,324 wheelchairs or scooters. Spirit Airlines had the worst record. In January 2023, it mishandled 50 of 696 wheelchairs or scooters, equal
to 7.1%

While these numbers might not seem large, they still amount to hundreds of real people losing their right to mobility, and Brislin said it’s in the industry’s best interest to work toward lowering that number as much as possible.

“We’re in this industry to help people and improve their functional independence, that is really what any of us do, regardless of the manufacturer,” he said. “Transportation in general of these products is, obviously, something that creates some challenges. So, I think it behooves us to keep advancing from a technology perspective, even from a legislative perspective. Everybody’s chairs are different, but there has to be a way that we can do some generalized things, whether it be training, or maybe the way that a product is developed, or a combination of all those things that we could do to improve.”

Brislin said Quantum would love to do more training sessions.

“We’re 100% open to working with anybody that wants us to come in and try and help, or at least work with us to solve some of these issues that happen on a regular basis with people that are flying with their chairs,” he said.

Additionally, advocacy groups such as All Wheels Up work with airline carriers and airplane manufacturers to make airplanes wheelchair accessible for all, focusing on the fact that most chairs must be stowed in cargo rather than used on the plane, leading to discomfort and mobility issues while in flight. The organization cites U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg saying, “No other form of transportation—trains, buses, boats—requires you to give up your mobility device when you board. The same ought to be true of airlines.”

The United Spinal Association, National MS Society, Paralyzed Veterans of America and other groups have voiced their support of the Air Carrier Access Amendments Act (H.R. 1267/S. 545). The act aims to protect and bolster the rights of passengers with disabilities in air transportation, including better accommodations and accessibility and modernization of standards and regulations. Some regulation and standard updates called for in the act concern:

  • Wheelchair and assistive device stowage
  • Safe and prompt boarding, deplaning and connections
  • between flights
  • Seating accommodations
  • Lavatory accessibility

“Access for individuals with disabilities in air transportation must move into the 21st century, or individuals with disabilities will be left behind and unable to compete in today’s job market or enjoy the opportunities available to other citizens of the United States,” reads the bill.

While both the nonprofit and Brislin have acknowledged this issue can’t be fixed overnight, both have seen small victories.

At the end of 2018, Congress passed the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act with the nonprofit’s amendment requiring a feasibility study into wheelchair securement systems that it spent years advocating in favor of. The Act also required airlines to report how many wheelchairs it breaks monthly, included a Passenger with Disabilities Bill of Rights, set minimum seat dimensions and more.

Quantum has seen a rise in providers that do repairs and strictly work with airlines to get replacement chairs or parts for clients, and the network continues to grow.

“So, there are some positives that are being made around this issue,” he said.

Meg Herndon is the managing editor for HomeCare Media.