Why Disabled Flyers Say the Airline Industry's Stuck in the Last Century
Flying back to New York from Las Vegas for a work trip a few years ago, Yannick Benjamin hoped he could make a seamless transition from the tarmac to the office as soon as he touched ground, like any other business traveler.
But things didn't go as planned.
"As I was waiting outside of the plane in LaGuardia, sitting on the aisle chair, I could see this commotion, could see people running with walkie-talkies," Benjamin, now 40, says. "Sure enough, someone comes over and says, 'I'm sorry, but your wheelchair is in Detroit.'"
Benjamin, a paraplegic since a 2003 car accident, was yet again dealing with the kind of foul-up that Americans who use wheelchairs have come to take for granted when flying. Many complain that they still feel like an afterthought when it comes to US airlines, with their expensive and critically important wheelchairs often tossed into the cargo hold like any duffel bag full of old clothes while they themselves are manhandled by airline employees too ill-equipped and undertrained to safely care for those among the country's most vulnerable.
"Air travel for people with disabilities hasn't gotten much better for decades," Kelly Buckland, executive director of the National Council for Independent Living and a wheelchair user, said. "In some ways, it's gotten worse."
Flying with a wheelchair has become so filled with obstacles, potential danger and bureaucratic red tape, in fact, that many wheelchair users opt out entirely.
"We have a lot of members who choose simply not to fly — they will actually drive well out of their way because they want to forgo a process that's invasive and difficult," Heather Ansley, acting associate executive director of government relations for the Paralyzed Veterans of America, said. "It's one of the few areas of transportation that hasn't changed significantly since the 1990s. For them, when you step on an airplane, it's like stepping back in time."
To 1986, to be specific. That's the year Congress passed the Air Carriers Access Act, which forbade commercial airlines from discriminating against people with disabilities. It brought air travel for the disabled into the 20th century but, according today's flyers, didn't follow the airlines into the 21st century, where seats have gotten smaller, cabins more cramped and services scantier.
"When the regulations were made, there was first class and economy and maybe business, and airplanes were flying half empty, so it was easy to get an upgrade when you were a person in a wheelchair," Ansley said. "Now, planes are flying more people and seats are smaller, and you have all these levels of service like premium economy and basic economy. The regulations say that an airline is supposed to give you the seat that best suits your needs as a disabled person, but because there are all these new categories, that means if you're in basic economy with a fused or fixed leg, you no longer get priority access to the bulkhead seat."
Then there's the way airlines handle wheelchairs, which almost always must be checked into the cargo hold. The stories range from lost wheelchairs — like Benjamin's wheelchair that ended up in Detroit — to those that are damaged or outright destroyed. With the average electric wheelchair running about $12,000, that's a hefty expense for people who already have to worry about medical bills to deal with the rest of their lives. But that's still not the worst aspect of the way airlines treat passengers' wheelchairs.
"The thing you have to understand is that this is not a piece of equipment — these are literally my legs," Shaun Castle, deputy executive director of the PVA and himself a paraplegic, said. "If you break my wheelchair, you are breaking my legs. I cannot move. If, through your negligence, you as an airline broke the leg of a passenger, you would go to any length to make it right, wouldn't you? And yet we see chair backs torn, batteries ripped out and frames cracked by baggage handlers who just toss the chairs around."
To top it all off, the disabled regularly encounter airline employees who clearly have no training in handling people with handicaps and sometimes seem to lack basic empathy. Witness the woman with multiple sclerosis whom a Delta flight crew allegedly tied to her chair so tightly they bruised her arms and left her in tears. (Delta said it was disappointed the woman and her family didn't have a "satisfying travel experience" and noted that its complaint-resolution officials "have been specially trained and are aware of Federal Aviation Administration and Department of Transportation regulations.")
"I've flown to airports where there was no ramp ready and no one knew how to transport me so I'd have to transfer myself across the floor and drag myself down the stairs on my own," Castle said.
For Benjamin, the sting of the incident at LaGuardia didn't come from the lost wheelchair, but the attitude of the employees.
"They were so nonchalant and casual about it," he said. "I'm like, that's a $10,000 piece of equipment that does so much for me, and to make up for losing it you're offering me a complimentary taxi ride to my job. They couldn't give two sh*ts. They were acting like it was a pair of high heels and one of the heels broke and I could walk into a store and buy another pair of shoes. They didn't understand or care that I couldn't just walk into a store and buy another wheelchair."
Passengers with disabilities find that the service they get can vary widely from airline to airline and airport to airport, with jobs like wheelchair pushers relegated to recent employees with a minimum of training, high turnover rates and, frequently, language barriers.
"We've seen too many incidents where people don't know how to properly lift someone or use the aisle chair [the narrow, wheeled chair used to transfer passengers to their seats on an airplane] so that members have fallen over and hurt themselves," Ansley said.
"I've seen people being dropped on the jetway as they were being transferred, me included," Buckland said.
But there isn't actually much wronged passengers with disabilities can do besides go to the kind of conflict-resolution officers Delta touted. In the years since the ACA was passed, courts have ruled that passengers don't have a private right to take action against airlines that have violated their rights. In other words, if an airline breaks your wheelchair, you can file a formal complaint with the Department of Transportation and hope that the DOT fines the airline and the airline eventually cuts you a check to cover the damages, but you cannot file a lawsuit against the company.
"You cannot sue an airline for any of this," Buckland said. "You're entirely dependent on the Department of Transportation. We need to be able to hold them accountable."
And when the DOT levies a fine on an airline, it often amounts to nothing more than a slap on the wrist.
"United was given a $2 million penalty in 2016 for disability-related issues, which is nothing," Ansley said. "They paid back much of that money handing out vouchers or getting credit for tracking wheelchair attendance. And even then, there was no compensation for the individuals who were hurt by them. Instead, they may have gotten a flight refunded, or miles or future travel vouchers."
It's worth noting that at the time, that $2 million fine was considered a win by some — one of the largest fines on a US airline for an issue not related to safety. The airline actually paid the Treasury Department only $700,000, though, with the rest considered paid in credit for making certain improvements.
United referred questions to Airlines for America, the industry's main lobbying group.
"US airlines meet or exceed all accommodation standards in DOT regulations and provide safe, comfortable and affordable air transportation to hundreds of passengers with disabilities daily," spokeswoman Alison McAfee said in an email.
But advocates find it hard to get their point across because it's not clear exactly how much of a problem the disabled are having flying, since no one, at least officially, keeps track of the issue. A new regulation was supposed to be go into effect this January requiring airlines to keep track of and report how many wheelchairs and mobility scooters they damaged each year, but last year the Trump administration suddenly postponed that till at least 2019, without allowing public comment on the decision.
"It's difficult for our members to make the decision on which airlines have the best track record without that information," Ansley said.
The PVA and other groups have filed suit against the DOT to reverse the delay, but McAfee said it helps make sure the airlines get it right.
"Airlines are using the additional time provided by the extension to the wheelchair final rule to resolve several technical challenges in order to meet the January 2019 effective date," McAfee said. "We remain committed to offering a high level of customer service and routinely go above and beyond to provide a pleasant flight experience for all of our passengers, especially those in need of additional assistance."
Legislators in both the Senate and the House of Representatives have been pushing bills that would update disability laws for flying, making airlines more accountable for violations and giving disabled passengers the right to sue airlines for violating their rights. Parts of the bills, including requiring hands-on training for employees working with handicapped passengers, were included in the FAA Reauthorization Act that the House passed in late April and is now awaiting Senate approval.
"We need better training, and air carriers need to be responsible for their employees and the people they contract," said US Rep. Jim Langevin of Rhode Island, who sponsored the House version of the bill, the Air Carrier Access Amendments Act of 2018 (HR 5004). (Langevin is also the first quadriplegic to serve in the House.) "I hear too often, 'Sorry, this is a contractor we've never worked with before.'"
Still, he said, it's important to recognize that it's getting better, if in fits and starts, like in 2013, when the DOT clarified that airlines have to prioritize preboarding for the disabled. And any sort of change has to be balanced against the fact that airlines are businesses and can't change the world overnight, he added.
"It's essential for us to understand the scope of the challenges the airlines face in providing the services they provide," he said.
But for wheelchair users like Buckland, improvements in flying can't come soon enough.
"We don't want to have to have to explain to the airlines that these are our legs, our arms, not just a piece of equipment," he said. "So when you're damaging our wheelchairs, you're damaging the part of our lives that allow us to fly. But taking the time to put in that little bit of extra effort will gain you a customer for life."