Disabled Traveler Says Airline Destroyed His Wheelchair During Flight.

According to data released by the U.S. Department of Transportation, disability-related air travel complaints add up to thousands each year and are on the rise.
Records show an increasing number of complaints about mobility equipment being damaged or...
Records show an increasing number of complaints about mobility equipment being damaged or destroyed on flights.(InvestigateTV)
Published: Sep. 21, 2021 at 4:24 PM CDT
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(InvestigateTV) - For people with disabilities, flying has become another obstacle because many have had their wheelchairs damaged or destroyed while traveling.

In July 2020, Lanny Hill’s life changed forever after a work accident left him paralyzed from the waist down.

“I was thinking, oh, I’m going to get better. I’m going to get better. I’m just going to bounce back,” Hill said.

But he didn’t and learned to live with it. In December, Hill took his first flight ever after his accident. He flew from Gainesville, Florida to San Diego, California, an experience that will likely be his last. “I was kind of really upset and disgusted,” Hill said.

His encounter at the airport to getting onto the airplane was a near disaster because he said he received no wheelchair assistance or help from flight attendants.

“There were a few times through this whole trip that my feelings really got crushed.”

To make matters worse, Hill said baggage handlers destroyed his custom-made wheelchair after it was stored under the plane with the luggage. He captured photos showing the dents, bent wheels and a missing brake.

“It’s like, I’m sitting there watching this, it’s just tearing my heart apart,” Hill said.

He had to replace the wheelchair.

The ordeal that Hill went through can be more than an inconvenience — it can be devastating.

InvestigateTV found nearly two hundred twitter complaints from people with disabilities across the country sharing horrible stories of broken and lost wheelchairs while flying with different airlines. Some left struggling or even stranded at airports.

But that’s just a small amount of the overall reported complaints.

We examined more than 130,000 records of disability-related air travel complaints on U.S. flights reported to the transportation department between 2015 and 2018.

The data, the most recent available, shows a steady rise in the number of complaints:

  • 2015: 26,401
  • 2016: 27,842
  • 2017: 29,312
  • 2018: 30,950

These statistics do not surprise one U.S. lawmaker.

“Bottom line wheelchairs and other medical devices are parts of our body. My wheelchair are my legs. It’s not, you know, a piece of luggage. If you break my wheelchair, you literally have broken my legs because I can’t get around without it,” said Sen. Tammy Duckworth, a Democrat from Illinois.

Duckworth, a combat veteran and double amputee, fought to get a bill passed requiring the transportation department to report monthly wheelchair and scooter damages on airlines.

It shows that since 2018, some of the major airlines have lost or damaged 15,425 wheelchairs and scooters.

“Now, we’re starting to have the data. So, I think they should certainly report additional information on what those complaints are. You need to train your people,” Duckworth said. “The people who are handling our wheelchairs are not trained to handle wheelchairs, their baggage handlers.”

An InvestigateTV Our data analysis shows that the majority of disability-related complaints are against the country’s four largest airlines. American topped the list with more than 25,945 complaints, followed by Delta with 25,011, United at 19,513 and Southwest airlines with 17,904 complaints.

InvestigateTV contacted the four major airlines. A Delta spokesperson responded with a written statement:

“We believe travel is for everyone, and it’s our priority to deliver the best service and ensure accessibility for all Delta customers. We understand the frustrations that come when we fall short and apologize to these customers for their experience. As we listen to feedback from customers, we are proactively working with our Advisory Board on Disability and our cross divisional operations teams to continuously improve the travel experience for our customers with disabilities.”

But Heather Ansley, of Paralyzed Veterans of America, disagrees.

“Many times, they don’t have the best training, communication can be difficult, and these individuals are putting themselves in danger because they don’t know how to properly lift people,” said Ansley, who works as the nonprofit’s associate executive director of government relations. “They’re putting the person in danger.”

She said she’s seen wheelchairs misused, mishandled, lost, and damaged.

“Many people who use wheelchairs or have other disabilities choose not to fly,” she said “But we don’t want a situation where we have separate transportation paths for people who use wheelchairs versus people who don’t.”

When asked about working with travelers with disabilities, the trade group Airlines for America, which represents the airline industry, told InvestigateTV:

“All U.S. carriers provide initial and recurrent training on accommodating passengers with disabilities for employees and contractors who work with the traveling public, which includes boarding and deplaning assistance for passengers using a wheelchair and awareness and appropriate responses to passengers with a disability.”

For Lanny Hill, flying taught him a hard lesson, and he hopes airlines will learn a valuable one, too.

“I think all airlines should go through a training. I mean, to be honest with you, baggage claim people need to learn how to properly handle equipment,” Hill said. “I want to be a voice and I want to help others because of what happened to me.”

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