Air­lines kept break­ing Sen. Duck­worth’s wheelchairs

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - News - BY KELLEN BROWNING kbrown­[email protected]­clatchydc.com

Illi­nois Sen. Tammy Duck­worth was rolling up the air­port ramp in her wheelchair af­ter ar­riv­ing in Chicago. She made it just a few feet, and then the chair col­lapsed un­der­neath her.

Some­time be­tween board­ing the plane in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., and de­plan­ing hours later, the air­line staff had man­aged to snap a one-inch ti­ta­nium rod on her cus­tom­ized wheelchair clean in half. Then things got worse. “They kind of lugged me up the ramp and I sat in the wait­ing room area,” re­called Duck­worth, an Army vet­eran who lost both legs when her he­li­copter was shot down in Iraq. Even­tu­ally, some­one brought her a large, un­gainly air­port wheelchair that re­quired some­one else to push it.

All that hap­pened in 2015. The fol­low­ing year, Duck­worth was elected to the U.S. Se­nate.

She found that no one had any idea how of­ten these wheelchair prob­lems hap­pened. So this fall, she got a law passed re­quir­ing air­lines to re­port to the Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion how many wheelchairs or mo­tor­ized scoot­ers they lose, mis­han­dle or break. The re­port­ing be­gan this month, and dis­abil­ity ad­vo­cates ex­pect the re­ports to re­veal a huge prob­lem.

But Al­i­son McAfee, a spokes­woman for Air­lines for Amer­ica, a lob­by­ing group, said air­lines “pro­vide safe and com­fort­able air trans­porta­tion to hun­dreds of pas­sen­gers with dis­abil­i­ties daily” and are “com­mit­ted to of­fer­ing a high level of cus­tomer ser­vice.”

Air­lines and dis­abil­ity groups are work­ing to­gether to “re­duce the num­ber of wheelchairs dam­aged in air travel” by ex­am­in­ing air­lines’ han­dling and stor­age guide­lines, train­ing staff to han­dle wheelchairs and en­cour­ag­ing man­u­fac­tur­ers to build wheelchairs suit­able for air­plane travel, McAfee said.

Meet­ings be­tween those coali­tions, which are fa­cil­i­tated by the Re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion En­gi­neer­ing and As­sis­tive Tech­nol­ogy So­ci­ety of North Amer­ica, are on­go­ing.

Air­line per­son­nel have dam­aged Duck­worth’s wheelchairs three times since 2013, in­clud­ing this month, when they jammed the wheel of her $5,000 chair.

The sen­a­tor trav­els with a con­gres­sional staffer who knows what to do in these sit­u­a­tions. But when air­lines break the av­er­age dis­abled trav­eler’s wheelchair – a prob­lem that Duck­worth and other dis­abil­ity ad­vo­cates con­tend hap­pens far too of­ten – they’re stuck.

“You sit there, and you are now im­mo­bi­lized,” Duck­worth said. “They’ve ba­si­cally taken away your legs.”

The mis­han­dled wheelchair num­bers, bro­ken down by air­line, will be pub­licly avail­able on­line as part of the trans­porta­tion depart­ment’s monthly Air Travel Con­sumer Re­ports. Pro­po­nents say the in­creased trans­parency will give con­sumers an­other met­ric they can use to com­pare air­lines, the same way fliers can view the num­ber of flight de­lays or con­sumer com- plaints.

The num­bers will “show how per­va­sive this prob­lem is,” pre­dicted Stan­ley Brown, a quad­ri­plegic Army vet­eran who was par­a­lyzed in a car ac­ci­dent while on duty in 1996.

Brown, the pres­i­dent of the St. Louis chap­ter of Par­a­lyzed Veter­ans of Amer­ica, said he has had four or five frus­trat­ing ex­pe­ri­ences where air­line per­son­nel dam­aged his wheelchair or failed to strap him into a chair used to trans­port to the plane seat, caus­ing him to fall onto the tar­mac. At one point, he was forced to duct-tape his wheelchair to­gether while wait­ing a week for a re­place­ment.

Brown said many dis­abled peo­ple will drive for days to get to their des­ti­na­tions be­cause they refuse to fly. Oth­ers have been bedrid­den for days af­ter be­ing hurt by rough han­dling or un­com­fort­able air­port wheelchairs, he said. McAfee de­clined to com­ment on these prob­lems.

In 2016, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion ruled that air­lines had to start re­port­ing statis­tics by Jan. 1, 2018. But in 2017, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion agreed to lob­by­ists’ re­quests for a de­lay, which lasted un­til Duck­worth’s pro­vi­sion took ef­fect this month.

Delta Air Lines and Air­lines for Amer­ica asked for the de­lay be­cause the air­line in­dus­try was “fac­ing chal­lenges with parts of this reg­u­la­tion and needs more time to im­ple­ment it,” ac­cord­ing to the Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion. McAfee said air­lines used the ex­tra time “to re­solve sev­eral tech­ni­cal chal­lenges,” but would not say specif­i­cally what they were.

Duck­worth has a dif­fer­ent in­ter­pre­ta­tion for the re­quested de­lay.

“They don’t want peo­ple to know how bad they are,” she said. The sen­a­tor hoped the new law will in­cen­tivize air­lines to avoid dam­ag­ing wheelchairs and bet­ter train staff on how to han­dle them, be­cause “con­sumers will vote with their dol­lars.”

Duck­worth also ex­pressed some cau­tious op­ti­mism based on her con­ver­sa­tions with Suzanne Boda, a se­nior vice pres­i­dent at Amer­i­can Air­lines.

“She has said she’s com­mit­ted to mak­ing sure that they set the whole (dis­abil­ity) train­ing pro­gram, not just for their em­ploy­ees but for their con­trac­tors as well,” Duck­worth said.

Boda said Amer­i­can has be­gun em­pha­siz­ing bet­ter train­ing and “very high- stan­dard au­dits” over the past few months to en­sure the com­pany is meet­ing dis­abled cus­tomers’ ex­pec­ta­tions.

“Hope­fully, we just con­tinue to get bet­ter in this area,” Boda said. “Our goal is to en­sure equal­ity for all cus­tomers.”

J. SCOTT AP­PLE­WHITE AP

Sen. Tammy Duck­worth, D-Ill., ar­rives at the Capi­tol for a vote with her new daugh­ter, Maile, on April 9. Duck­worth says air­line mis­han­dling of wheelchairs is com­mon.

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