Disabled travelers say airlines damage wheelchairs too often – USA TODAY

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  • U.S. airlines reported mishandling more than 800 wheelchairs in October, per 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’s Remarkable Tech Summit earlier this month, they were hoping for a smooth journey. But, as a disability awareness consultant and user of a custom-fitted power wheelchair, Gurza, who uses they/them pronouns, knew there could be trouble 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 wasn’t so lucky.

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

Gurza explained that the power bar they use to control the chair was knocked out of place, forcing them to contort themself just to stay mobile. 

“It was hitting me in the groin and hurting me,” Gurza said, adding that the damp seat could become a long-term issue, too. “My wheelchair is totally customized. The seating is totally customized. Getting it wet, it could grow mold.”

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Gurza said they’ve come to expect issues like this whenever they travel. Their wheelchair was further damaged on the trip back to Toronto, and Gurza said Air Canada also lost a chair designed to use while showering. 

How common is wheelchair damage while flying?

According to the Department of Transportation, U.S. airlines reported mishandling more than 800 wheelchairs in October, translating to almost 1.5 damaged chairs for every 100 flown.

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

Ziv also recently had her wheelchair damaged beyond repair while flying and expects it to take months or maybe even a year or more for it to be replaced.

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She and Gurza both said airlines have a lot of work to do to improve the flying experience for disabled travelers.

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

Air Canada responds

Gurza told USA TODAY that Air Canada offered them a $500 travel voucher and will replace the shower chair that was lost. 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 before their trip back.

In a statement, Air Canada said it continues to work with Gurza to try to get the issue resolved.

“We fully recognize the importance of mobility aids for customers and have prescribed processes for transporting them safely and we regularly review and update our practices as opportunities for improvements are identified,” an airline spokesperson said. “Regrettably, 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 push to boost diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives, Gurza and Ziv said conversations about accessibility for disabled people are often an afterthought. 

“Some airline had hired a disabled person for a day to be like, ‘oh, look at us,’ ” Gurza said. “They let this person with Downs Syndrome be hired for a day,” as a flight attendant, but not actually join the company full time.

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“We’re far from a place where disability is on the agenda for every organization,” Ziv added.

In the longer term. Ziv said she hopes airlines and airplane manufacturers are able to find a way to allow wheelchair users to fly safely while staying in their chairs. 

“There’s no other form of transportation where people have to get out of their wheelchairs,” she said. “Literally, you can get on rides at Disney World and stay in your wheelchair.”

For now, Gurza said, there’s plenty airlines can do to improve the experience for disabled travelers without inventing new technology and overhauling their aircraft.

“They should be hiring disabled people to work in their airports to liaise with disabled passengers,” Gurza said. “They should be hiring disabled people to help them write policies that make sense.”

Gurza and Ziv suggested that airlines should invest in equipment to help load power wheelchairs – which can weigh as much as 400 pounds – onto airplanes safely while they’re still transported as cargo. And both said airlines could do better by developing a more consistent, predictable procedure for assisting disabled customers. Even just keeping information on file about the proper way to handle their devices could go a long way.

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“There’s no communication from me, the customer, through to the right channels,” said Gurza, who explained that they always notify the airline about their wheelchair’s specifications in advance but frequently have to explain themselves again at check-in. 

“They just don’t have enough people on the ground caring for disabled people who are going through this,” they said.

Until airlines invest in improving their systems for disabled travelers, Ziv said she’s left guessing and worrying about what could happen the next time she travels.

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

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