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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Airlines have lost or damaged more than 15,000 wheelchairs since late 2018

Roughly 29 wheelchairs a day have been mishandled by airlines since they were required to begin officially reporting numbers

(iStock/Washington Post illustration)

The country’s largest airlines have lost or damaged at least 15,425 wheelchairs or scooters since they were required to start reporting those numbers to the government at the end of 2018.

Those figures represent nearly 1.5 percent of all such mobility devices loaded as cargo — and would be higher if the pandemic had not kept travelers on the ground for so much of 2020. In 2019, the first full year of reporting, 10,548 wheelchairs or scooters were lost, damaged, delayed or stolen. That amounts to roughly 29 a day.

That number plummeted to 3,464 in 2020, or about 9.5 a day. In the first quarter of this year, passengers reported that 712 devices, or nearly eight a day, were mishandled.

The real-life toll of the damage came into focus last month when a viral video on TikTok showed a woman crying after her wheelchair was damaged during a Delta flight.

“She kept repeating ‘This is my life. This is the only way I can live my life,’” wrote her friend, who was traveling with her and posted the video. “People in wheelchairs live in constant fear of airlines breaking our wheelchairs because it happens so often.”

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John Morris, founder of the accessible travel site Wheelchair Travel, said his own wheelchair has been damaged frequently during plane trips. He said he believes the numbers reported monthly as part of the Department of Transportation’s Air Travel Consumer Report do not reflect reality.

“Just in my own experience, it approaches 50 percent of trips,” he said during an interview Friday after getting off a flight. That interview was slightly delayed after he had to file a claim reporting damage to his chair during Friday’s flight.

The most recent damage was “fairly minor,” Morris said, but has been significant before — from damaged wheels to chairs that were dropped and totaled. Airlines have to repair or replace wheelchairs that they damage. Repairs can take weeks, a month or more.

“If you’re a full-time wheelchair user, your wheelchair has been designed to fit your body and your specific medical condition and your needs,” said Morris, 31, who runs a consultancy in the accessible travel space. “It’s a critical issue when they’re damaged.”

Even if the numbers are underreported, as Morris suspects, he said there is value to including them in government data. Those same monthly reports include information about delays, mishandled baggage, animal incidents, consumer complaints and other airline issues.

“I know that it does raise some level of awareness about the fact that damage is occurring,” he said. “And that is something that for a long time was swept under the rug and wasn’t really a matter of public knowledge.”

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The Department of Transportation proposed collecting data on damage to wheelchairs and scooters back in 2011, but those details weren’t included in regular reports until December 2018. It took an amendment to the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization by Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) to finally make the information available.

“Every airline passenger deserves to be treated with dignity and respect, but too often that is not the case,” Duckworth, a double amputee, said in a statement in 2018. “I know from personal experience that when an airline damages a wheelchair, it is more than a simple inconvenience — it’s a complete loss of mobility and independence. It was the equivalent of taking my legs away from me again. No air traveler should be left in the lurch, immobile on a plane.”

An effort to better handle such devices has been underway in the United States for at least a couple of years.

The trade group Airlines for America and its members are continuing “to work with disability groups and wheelchair manufacturers to address guidelines for the safe and efficient handling and storage of wheelchairs during air travel,” spokeswoman Katherine Estep said in an email.

In a tweet in response to the recent viral video about the damaged wheelchair, the International Air Transport Association said it too was working to improve the experience for travelers with wheelchairs.

“As an industry, we do need to do better on this as everyone deserves access to safe and dignified travel,” the global group said.