Disabled travelers say airlines too often damage wheelchairs

  • US airlines reported mishandling more than 800 wheelchairs in October, according to the Department of Transportation.
  • Andrew Gurza’s wheelchair was left in the rain during his trip to San Francisco.
  • The airline says it continues to work with Gurza to replace the chair.

When Andrew Gurza traveled to San Francisco for the Cerebral Palsy Alliance Remarkable Tech Summit earlier this month, they were hoping for a smooth trip. But, as a disability awareness consultant and user of a custom-made electric wheelchair, Gurza, who uses the pronouns they/them, knew there might be problems along the way.

“You never know what they’re going to do to your chair,” they told USA TODAY. “It’s really just luck.”

On this trip, Gurza was not so lucky.

When they arrived in San Francisco, they found their chair had been damaged and was “soaked” after apparently being left in the rain on the tarmac.

Gurza explained that the power bar they use to control the chair has been moved, forcing them to contort just to stay mobile.

“It was hitting my groin and hurting me,” Gurza said, adding that the wet seat could also become a long-term problem. “My wheelchair is totally customised. The seat is totally customised. If it gets wet it could develop mould.”

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Gurza said they expect problems like this every time they travel. Their wheelchair was further damaged on the trip back to Toronto, and Gurza said Air Canada also lost a chair designed for use while showering.

How common is wheelchair damage in flight?

According to the Department of Transportation, US airlines reported mishandling over 800 wheelchairs in October, which translates to nearly 1.5 damaged wheelchairs for every 100 flights.

“Imagine the equivalent of an airline saying, ‘Most people who fly are fine, but once in a while we break our legs when they get off the plane,'” Maayan Ziv said. , founder and CEO of Access Now and accessibility advocate. USA TODAY.

Ziv also recently had her wheelchair damaged beyond repair during a flight and expects it to take months, possibly a year or more, to replace.

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Both she and Gurza said airlines have a lot of work to do to improve the flight experience for travelers with disabilities.

“We need much better training on how to deal with customers with disabilities,” Ziv said. “We need to have proper handling of mobility devices that is not the same as baggage… They need to be classified as medical devices.”

Air Canada responds

Andrew Gurza's damaged wheelchair.

Gurza told USA TODAY that Air Canada gave them a $500 travel voucher and would replace the lost shower chair. Gurza added that the airline sent a contractor to repair their chair in San Francisco, but they said the technician was unable to repair the chair until they returned.

In a statement, Air Canada said it was continuing to work with Gurza to try to resolve the issue.

“We fully recognize the importance of mobility aids to customers and have prescribed processes for transporting them safely and we regularly review and update our practices as opportunities for improvement are identified,” said an airline spokesperson. “Unfortunately, given the volume carried, there are rare occasions when we do not meet our service levels.”

How accessibility advocates say airlines could do better

As companies across the country work to boost diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, Gurza and Ziv said conversations about accessibility for people with disabilities are often an afterthought.

“Some airlines had hired a disabled person for a day to say ‘oh, look at us,'” Gurza said. “They let this person with Down syndrome be hired for a day,” as an air hostessbut not actually join the business full time.

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“We are a long way from a place where disability is on every organization’s agenda,” Ziv added.

Longer term. Ziv said she hopes airlines and aircraft manufacturers will be able to find a way to allow wheelchair users to fly safely while seated in their chairs.

“There is no other means of transport where people have to get out of their wheelchairs,” she said. “Literally you can go on rides at disney world and stay in your wheelchair.”

For now, Gurza said, airlines can do a lot to improve the experience of travelers with disabilities without inventing new technology and overhauling their planes.

“They should hire people with disabilities to work at their airports to liaise with passengers with disabilities,” Gurza said. “They should hire people with disabilities to help them write policies that make sense.”

Gurza and Ziv suggested that airlines should invest in equipment to help load electric wheelchairs – which can weigh up to 400 pounds – onto planes safely while they are still being transported as cargo. And the two said airlines could do better by developing a more consistent and predictable procedure for helping customers with disabilities. Even just keeping information on the right way to manage their devices can go a long way.

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“There is no communication from me, the customer, to the right channels,” said Gurza, who explained that they always let the airline know their wheelchair specifications in advance, but that they often had to explain themselves again during check-in.

“They just don’t have enough people on the ground to deal with people with disabilities who are going through this,” they said.

Until airlines invest in improving their systems for travelers with disabilities, Ziv said she was left guessing and worried about what might happen the next time she travels.

“There’s nothing to say that if I had a new wheelchair tomorrow and had another trip, it wouldn’t happen again.”

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