Flying to a Loss of Mobility

To board a plane, wheelchair users must surrender their devices, which are often custom-made and cost thousands of dollars, and hope that airlines return them from the cargo hold intact. Oftentimes, they do not, leaving passengers stranded or waiting months for repairs. When an airline damages a wheelchair, it is more than a simple inconvenience — it’s a complete loss of mobility and independence. No air traveler should be left immobile on a plane or upon reaching their destination.

Public transportation, such as trains and buses, are required to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and create accessible wheelchair spots and restrooms. However, planes have been exempt from complying with the law because different rules apply under the Air Carrier Access Act, which was passed in 1986. The Air Carrier Access Act currently does not allow passengers with disabilities to sue for violations. Instead, the U.S. Department of Transportation and airline complaint processes are the only recourse.

After 36,930 disability-related complaints were made against airlines in 2018, Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth, who uses a wheelchair herself, wanted to make airlines accountable by legally requiring them to report damage to mobility equipment.  In December 2018, Senator Duckworth was able to add a provision into the FAA Reauthorization Act. That legislation is now in effect, requiring air carriers to disclose how many checked bags, wheelchairs, and motorized scooters they damage or mishandle.

In the first quarter of 2021, the Department of Transportation reported that airlines mishandled 712 wheelchairs or scooters – almost eight per day. Spirit Airlines had the highest percentage of incidents, damaging 2.88% of enplaned wheelchairs and scooters, followed by JetBlue (2.27%), American Airlines (1.57%), and Frontier (1.55%). However, disability advocates fear that these numbers may be underreported because sometimes damage is not noticed right away, or it is faster for the individual to make the repairs on their own instead of spending hours arguing with the airlines.

A broken wheelchair impacts a person’s mobility, independence, and quality of life. Because wheelchair damage or loss is so common, flying is just not a privilege that equally extends to the disability community.

Airlines aren’t just losing money on wheelchair repairs, replacements, or flight reimbursements to travelers with disabilities; they’re also missing out on the business of potential customers who stay away from flying for fear of getting their mobility device damaged. One airline that has taken an initiative to improve its accessibility is Delta Airlines by creating an Advisory Board on Disability.

Delta’s Advisory Board on Disability promotes accessibility for all of Delta’s customers by providing recommendations to Delta related to compliance, training, policies, procedures, and anything that impacts the air travel experience of people with disabilities. All Advisory Board members are individuals with different disabilities who are Delta Frequent Flyers.

Airlines and lawmakers need to make air travel fully accessible for the millions of people who use wheelchairs around the world. In March 2021, Sen. Tammy Baldwin and Rep. Jim Langevin introduced the Air Carrier Access Amendments Act of 2021, which would require airlines to ensure “proper stowage of assistive devices in the cargo hold to prevent damage.” It would also require the Department of Transportation to establish civil penalties for violations and make referrals to the Department of Justice for enforcement when necessary, establish a private right of action for plaintiffs to bring their own cases in court, require new airplane designs to improve the accessibility of seats, bathrooms, and stowage options for assistive devices, and require removal of access barriers on existing airplanes when it is readily achievable’.

These changes to the Air Carrier Access Act are long overdue to allow people with disabilities equal access to air travel and the ability to retain their mobility and independence upon arrival.