Poor handling of wheelchairs continues to plague airlines

In a 2018 move that supporters hoped would improve airlines’ handling of wheelchairs, Congress began requiring the DOT to gather and publish mishandled wheelchair statistics monthly as part of its Air Travel Consumer Report.

But last year, the fourth in which those statistics were published for all 12 months, the rate at which airlines either lost, damaged or delayed the return of checked wheelchairs was precisely the same as the first full year of reporting in 2019. 

It’s an outcome that has left advocates for passengers with disabilities shaking their heads.

“When an airline damages, loses or delays a passenger’s wheelchair, it is a significant and serious problem that endangers their health and limits their mobility and independence,” Heather Ansley, associate executive director of government relations for Paralyzed Veterans of America, said in testimony before the Senate Transportation Committee in late March. “In the worst cases, it can mean the end of the trip as the individual is forced to stay in a hotel bed while they wait for the repair of their wheelchair.”

DOT data shows that plenty of travelers continue to face the travail that comes with having their wheelchairs damaged or misplaced. Last year, the 10 largest U.S. airlines mishandled 11,389 wheelchairs or scooters, or 1.54% of the chairs they carried. That rate is far higher than .64% of checked bags that airlines mishandled during the same year. 

Performing especially poorly were Spirit, which mishandled 5.76% of the wheelchairs it carried, and JetBlue, whose mishandled wheelchair rate also exceeded 5%. 

Those numbers help explain why concern about wheelchair damage was the most frequently cited reason to avoid air travel in a survey conducted by the Paralyzed Veterans of America last year.  

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Statements from Spirit and JetBlue said they are addressing the situation. 

“We’re looking closely and are implementing plans to improve processes in this key area,” Spirit said, without elaboration. 

JetBlue offered a bit more detail. 

“We understand the importance of mobility devices, and we have recently implemented additional training for handling these devices, including wheelchairs,” it said. 

Airlines for America said that last year its seven passenger-airline members signed a commitment to passenger accessibility, which included a pledge to improve the handling of personal mobility aids.

Why wheelchairs get damaged

John Morris, founder of the advocacy group Wheelchairtravel.org, said there are four primary reasons that airlines damage wheelchairs more frequently than baggage. 

One is that chairs can weigh hundreds of pounds, and ground crews are often physically lifting them but not always from the points that are designed for load bearing. 

Another is that chairs often aren’t secured in cargo holds. 

A third reason is that depending upon the aircraft, some chairs don’t fit through the cargo door in an upright position. 

Finally, said Morris, electric chairs are often left outside in the rain and other adverse weather. 

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He said that the best way for airlines to improve the situation is to invest more in the proper equipment, including transport containers and mechanical loading equipment. 

“You can train someone to lift a wheelchair properly,” Morris said. “But I think the real solution is securing equipment so that staff don’t have to lift a 400-pound vehicle. Eliminating the opportunity for failure is the way that I would go about solving it.”

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