Federal data reveals hundreds of wheelchairs mishandled monthly by airlines

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Traveling in a wheelchair is challenging enough.

Federal data reveals hundreds of wheelchairs mishandled monthly by airlines. (Source: Gray DC)

Advocates say relying on airlines to have that wheelchair in one piece at the final destination shouldn’t be a lot to ask.

Senator Tammy Duckworth’s (D-IL) first-hand experience is leading to some changes according to advocates.

Duckworth said, “I’ve had my wheelchair broken while traveling.” She continued, “I ended up having to sit in that gate area unable to move because my wheelchair could no longer be used. So, I just sat there. I couldn’t stand up and go anywhere. And I was stuck.”

Duckworth is an Army veteran and double amputee. A new federal law that she authored is forcing airlines to reveal how much they break or lose wheelchairs.

In data reported to the U.S. Department of Transportation, of the nearly 33,000 wheelchairs and scooters handled in January [by 10 major airline networks], 681 were mishandled.

In February 593 were mishandled.

Ian Watlington, an advocate with the National Disability Rights Network said of the data, “Even I was surprised by how widespread it was.”

Watlington said people with disabilities have fought for decades to highlight the same problem Duckworth experienced, and said the numbers are validating the concerns they voiced.

Watlington said, “This isn’t a destroyed bag, or this isn’t the inconvenience for ripped clothing. This is somebody’s mobility.”

Department of Transportation data [from January and February of 2019] shows Delta and its partners as one of the best with safe handling.

The data shows American Airlines and its partners as the worst.

American Airlines spokeswoman Shannon Gilson said, “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.”

Southwest Airlines also ranked in the bottom-three during the first two months of data collection. Southwest spokesman Dan Landson said, “When damage is reported by a Customer, we take each claim seriously and immediately begin to work to have the device repaired or replaced. While this is taking place, we work with local vendors to provide a temporary replacement for our Customer to use until their device is fully repaired. In rare cases when a temporary device is not available that meets a Customer’s needs, we work with the Customer to accommodate them in the best way possible.”

Landson continued, “Additionally, Southwest is an active member on the Assistive Technology for Air Travel Committee of the Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America (RESNA). The committee is made up of airlines, disability advocacy groups, and wheelchair manufacturers and providers that work toward new manufacturing standards as well as consumer and airline best practices for handling assistive devices that will make these devices more compatible with air travel in the future.”

The Department of Transportation is publishing the data in its monthly “Air Travel Consumer Report.”

Copyright 2019 Gray DC. All rights reserved.

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