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New Data Shows US Airlines Damage About 25 Wheelchairs per Day

March 16, 2019
4 min read
New Data Shows US Airlines Damage About 25 Wheelchairs per Day
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The US Department of Transportation has released the first government recorded data on how airlines have mishandled wheelchairs and scooters that are used by passengers with disabilities.

Last year the DOT started requiring airlines to keep track of mishandled wheelchairs and scooters, and the first set of data from December 2018 has been revealed in the February 2019 Air Travel Consumer Report.

Data reveals how many wheelchairs and scooters were enplaned and mishandled by major US airlines.

More than 701 and wheelchairs and scooters were mishandled from Dec. 4 through Dec. 31. American Airlines and Envoy Air (an American Airlines subsidiary) were the worst offenders top spots, mishandling a 7.22% and 14.68% of wheelchairs, respectively.

Southwest mishandled 186 wheelchairs out of the nearly 3,000 they dealt with in December, with an incident rate of 6.46%.

It's important to note that both American and Southwest fully reported mishandling of all wheelchairs, but that both weren't able to accurately count all wheelchairs that were brought onto aircraft. It's likely that the mishandling rates for these carriers will go down once the airlines are able to correctly count these wheelchairs. The report explains exactly what was missed:

**Southwest informed the Department that for December 2018, it reported mishandlings of all power-assisted and manual wheelchairs and scooters; however, Southwest stated that its enplaned wheelchairs and scooters number did not include any manual wheelchairs enplaned by the carrier. Southwest has disclosed to the Department that it will have the ability to reliably capture manual wheelchairs enplaned on or after January 15, 2019, in its enplaned wheelchairs and scooters number submitted to the Department.

***American informed the Department that for December 2018, it reported mishandlings of all power-assisted and manual wheelchairs and scooters; however, American stated that its process for determining the enplanement number of wheelchairs and scooters may not have consistently accounted for all wheelchairs and scooters enplaned. American has also stated that this process may have impacted American’s wholly- owned subsidiary Envoy and American’s other branded code share carriers ExpressJet and SkyWest. American has indicated to the Department that it is enhancing its process to reliably capture all reportable enplaned wheelchairs and scooters, which may take a few months.

We spoke to John Morris who runs the blog Wheelchair Travel, which provides guides and news about travel with disabilities, and who broke the news yesterday. Morris said that when an airline "mishandles" a scooter it means its been lost, damaged or destroyed.

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"Wheelchairs are not often lost, so I believe this data is overwhelmingly reflective of damaged wheelchairs," Morris told TPG.

Morris doesn't believe Southwest and American's rates of damage were as high as the report states, but he did point out that they did damage more wheelchairs in total than any of the other carriers.

Morris said that the data is only based on damage reported by passengers, so it's possible the numbers are lower than what was in the report. Wheelchairs must be returned in the same condition they were received, according to the Air Carrier Access Act, so even minor or cosmetic damages qualifies as a mishandling.

"I believe the data will always make the situation look better than it is," said Morris. "One damaged wheelchair is too many, and airlines need to invest in the training and equipment necessary to ensure that damage is a rare exception, rather than a foregone conclusion that so many have come to expect."

More than 1% of the world's population uses a wheelchair, and serious damage can cause real consequences to those who must use a device.

“Honestly, air travel is the worst for people with disabilities — specifically people with power chairs or wheelchairs — because our equipment almost always gets ruined,” Ericka Jones, a systems advocate who specializes in transportation at the Center for Disability Rights, told TPG for a previous story on traveling with disabilities. It’s almost better to figure out another way to get there.”

Twitter users sounded off on the news — speaking about potential and real impacts from a damaged wheelchair.

The newly implemented reporting regulation had been finalized in 2016, but was delayed under the Trump Administration to January 1, 2019.

Past DOT data has not been as granular in reporting disability-related complaints. In 2016, there were 32,445 disability-related complaints and more than half of those complaints involved wheelchairs — 707 of which were damaged. One month of the new reporting scheme reveals that almost as many wheelchairs were damaged in December 2018 compared to all of 2016.

Featured image by Getty Images