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Knowing Your Rights: Wheelchair Damage During Air Travel

from the editor:

Many members of our PatientsRisingFam have told us that they have experienced wheelchair damage during air travel. We asked Surabhi to investigate this and she found that this problem was much bigger than we ever thought. We’ve given you some links at the end so you can share your own story about wheelchair damage when flying; check it out. Okay, here’s Surabhi…

Air travel and navigating airports can be stressful for anybody. It can be particularly trying for those who depend on a wheelchair for navigation, because not all airlines and aircrafts may be equipped to accommodate persons with disabilities. Add to that the risk of damage to wheelchairs due to mishandling or inappropriate stowing in flight.

Data published by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DoT) show that in 2022, between 800-1,000 wheelchairs and scooters were damaged by U.S. airlines each month. 

Reducing the Risk of Wheelchair Damage During Air Travel

Here are some recommendations to reduce the likelihood of damage to your wheelchair when flying:

  • Stow wheelchair in the aircraft cabin: Aircrafts typically have space to accommodate a collapsed wheelchair in one of the cabin closets. Ask if that’s a possibility when you are traveling and avoid the cargo hold.
  • Remove all attachments: Before checking your non-collapsible or power wheelchair into the cargo hold, remove all attachments (seat cushion, cupholder, foot and arm rests, tray table, etc.) and bring them into the cabin.
  • Leave instructions for baggage handlers: Attach instructions on powering on and off, setting the wheelchair to free-wheel mode, and the right way to lift the chair. In addition to attaching the note to the chair, provide a copy to the agent at the gate or directly to the baggage handler.
  • Carry tools for disassembly, if needed, along with instructions. 

Process for Filing Claim for a Damaged Wheelchair

An airline is responsible to completely cover repair or replacement costs—up to 100% of the original purchase price—for a damaged wheelchair. The airline also has to provide a loaner in the interim. If you’d rather send the wheelchair for repair to your trusted vendor, the airline is required to pay for the repair costs. If the airline refuses, you should file a complaint with the Department of Transportation.

It is important to file a damage report immediately at the baggage office at the airport to avoid repair delays or denial.

Repairs or securing a replacement wheelchair can be a time-consuming process, during which the owner of that chair may be immobilized or dependent on a caregiver. The experience could also leave individuals unsure about future air travel. 

Support Through Policy Reform

The Air Carrier Access Act, created in 1990:

  • Prohibits discriminatory practices by airlines, such as
    • Refusal to transport individuals because of their disability
    • Need for an advance notice (except if certain special accommodations are needed)
    • Limit on the number of individuals with disability on a flight
    • Requiring a travel aid for a person with disability, except if a safety assistant is deemed necessary
  • Ensures facilities are accessible 
  • Provides persons with disabilities assistance with boarding, deplaning, and with making it to their connecting flight(s)
  • Collapsible wheelchairs and other assistive devices have priority for in-cabin storage space as well as in the baggage compartment
  • Adequate training of airline staff, including contractors, who interact with passengers 

Details on air travel rights of individuals with disability can be found here.

Shareable images

Do you want to tell us your story about damage to durable medical equipment while traveling? Here are three options:

CREATE AN AUDIO CLIP that can be featured on our podcast

MAKE A SHORT SOCIAL POST that we can on our social media channels

TELL YOUR LONGER STORY on the Patients Rising Stories platform – no word limits, use your images, get a URL to share wherever you wish

Or you can answer a few questions about infertility here.

Surabhi Dangi-Garimella, Ph.D. is a biologist who provides writing and strategic support to non-profit groups via her consultancy, SDG AdvoHealth, LLC.

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Surabhi Dangi Garamella

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