New law requires airlines to report wheelchair damage
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 different times since 2013, including earlier 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 complaints.
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.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., says airline mishandling of wheelchairs is common.