US airlines still have far to go to address passenger mobility needs

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As of last month, the US Department of Transportation’s Air Travel Consumer Report now includes statistics about damaged wheelchairs and scooters on US carriers, and raises awareness of the injuries done to passengers with limited mobility.

The information was added to the Air Travel Consumer Report as part of the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018, and as such, reflects data stemming from damage claims between 4 December and 31 December 2018. This makes December’s total number of 701 reported damaged mobility devices simply staggering.

There would be a global uproar if over seven hundred passengers were incapacitated as a result of flying in one year – let alone in a month. Yet, when a passenger mobility device is mishandled that passenger is incapacitated.

Disability rights activist and Senior Fellow for the Center for American Progress, Rebecca Cokley, shared her views on the real-life impact of this US DOT report on Twitter. The replies shed light on a number of painful personal stories of travelers whose mobility equipment was damaged when flying by air.

While this new accountability is a positive step forward – you can’t fix what you don’t measure – the method is still to view these incidents as extensions of baggage handling mishaps. That approach does not paint an accurate picture of what happens when a traveler loses a wheelchair or scooter.

Airlines are responding to passenger claims, within the letter of the law.

When approached by Runway Girl Network for comment on the results of this new report, a Delta spokesperson stated:

Delta follows DOT requirements with respect to the limits to liability for loss, damage, or delay concerning wheelchairs or other assistive devices. Baggage liability limits for loss, damage, or delay concerning wheelchairs or other assistive devices do not apply. All airlines are required to follow 14 CFR § 382.131 which says that ‘the basis for calculating the compensation for a lost, damaged, or destroyed wheelchair or other assistive device shall be the original purchase price of the device.’

The Delta spokesperson added, “If a customer experiences a delay or damage to an assistive device, Delta partners with airport vendors to obtain timely, temporary assistive device solutions to meet a customer’s needs.”

American Airlines spokesperson Shannon Gilson told RGN: “Our goal is to ensure customers of all abilities have a positive travel experience and we strive to do better every day. We’ve taken a number of steps to meet the new reporting requirements and continue to improve our processes to ensure our team members have the tools they need to properly handle and track wheelchairs and assistive devices.”

American works with Global Repair Group (GRG) to handle any chairs or scooters in need of repair and make arrangements for a temporary replacement if needed. The airline said it contacts GRG as soon as it is aware of any mishandling, even while the passenger is en route to the destination.

Chris Mainz, senior manager, public relations at Southwest Airlines also cited the Air Carrier Access Act, in terms of legal liability for repair or replacement, and said the airline works with a repair vendor which can offer replacement equipment as needed.

“In cases where a customer may have needs that cannot be accommodated with temporary equipment, we work with that customer individually to accommodate them while their device is being repaired,” Mainz said. “We also have the ability to provide loaner wheelchairs – in two sizes – as well as loaner walkers and rollators. In addition, in our domestic stations, we have the ability to quickly handle may assistive device issues by providing replacement rollators/walkers right from the Baggage Service Office. Wheelchairs are the only items available in our international stations.”

While necessary, the temporary replacement or expedited repair of a damaged mobility device may not be adequate.

As traveler Dominic Hyams explained, losing a mobility device can negatively affect a person’s life for weeks, and even keep them from earning a living.

Hyams’ own chair was damaged beyond repair by a UK air carrier during a family trip in 2017. “Although I had asked for it to be brought up to the aircraft numerous times in the booking process and on the day, my Permobil F5 (a £22,000 chair) had been put on a baggage trolley like another bit of luggage, not secured down, and fell off the trolley into a thunderstorm,” he said. “All parts including the chassis, seat, arms, controller and electrics completely ruined. And with the impact/damage, my wheelchair supplier said that he would not be able to ‘repair’ as he couldn’t vouch for the integrity of the chair after replacing whatever parts may be needed, so I would need a replacement.”

“The impact was massive, and of course not appreciated by the airline at the time until I explained everything,” Hyams added. “Being a custom wheelchair meant that getting a new one was a new fitting, ordering and then building process – all around 12 weeks. In that period of time I was lucky enough to be able to rent a temporary wheelchair that got me from point A to B, but it didn’t feel safe or comfortable. I couldn’t drive my car for 12 weeks because my wheelchair normally acts as my driving seat with a special locking system, and therefore all my normal travel plans and working arrangements were thrown into semi-chaos.”

Hyams believes the US DOT statistics show there is a lot of work ahead for airlines to respond appropriately to these passenger needs.

“The statistics from the USA demonstrated we are a long way off this at the moment – with there being a significant percentage chance of something going wrong if you put your trust in the airlines, which understandably many people are unwilling to do,” he said.

The number of wheelchairs and scooters mishandled by airlines in December 2018 is staggering. Chart: US DOT

As a result, travelers with limited mobility or other disabilities requiring assistive devices may opt out of air travel entirely, which puts them at a disadvantage. It is discrimination through poor service.

Airlines have special IATA certification programs to manage sensitive cargo items – like pharmaceuticals and livestock – and they must meet multiple regulations to ensure that passengers arrive at their destination unharmed. Lumping mobility devices in with luggage – both in handling and in accountability – disregards that these devices are not just critical equipment but they are extensions of passengers’ lives.

As Hyams said, “Ultimately, wheelchairs and mobility aids need to be treated and respected like you were handling someone’s limbs. Hopefully, we will get closer to a time when wheelchairs can freely go on planes without the worry or anxiety that things may go wrong.”

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3 Comments

  1. Michael Childers

    Excellent article. Another issue is the amount of waiting time that is involved at the airport waiting for someone to bring wheelchairs to assist waiting passengers. This seems to be getting worse.

  2. Superb Article, it really illustrates the true impact, its not just about the compensation the aftermath is horrendous. I will continue to campaign and lobby, with my consortium now set up we will be working alongside government and stakeholders to resolve this. I want to eliminate the personal tragedy, but also create that wheelchair space on the aircraft thus reducing the airline financial compensation, speed up turn around times, bring more passengers and retain existing older passengers who simply feel that flying is no longer for them.

  3. Sheri Byrne-Haber

    I am guessing the “two sizes” of wheelchair offered by SW don’t include electric wheelchairs, since I wasn’t offered one when they damaged mine. Unless you are a person with disability, or live with one, you don’t understand the havoc that can be reached by a broken wheelchair. I am super disappointed that my favorite airline for other reasons has a worse damage record than what are considered garbage airlines like Spirit and Frontier. Also I have an unresolved theft case with SW, I never heard from them after I filed the claim. Thinking about taking my multi-decade allegiance elsewhere.