After a United Airlines flight three years ago, Isabelle Briar ripped open her thumb as she pushed her wheelchair away from the gate. The airline had cracked the metal grip ring, leaving a sharp, protruding shard.

After a United Airlines flight three years ago, Isabelle Briar ripped open her thumb as she pushed her wheelchair away from the gate. The airline had cracked the metal grip ring, leaving a sharp, protruding shard. 

The same airline ignored Cindy Otis’ complaints about damage to her power chair in 2006, responding weeks later and only after she had an attorney write a letter threatening to sue. 

In 2017, U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Illinois, boarded a flight hours after writing federal Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao. Duckworth wanted to know why the agency again delayed requiring airlines to track damage to wheelchairs and scooters. 

Upon landing, the Army veteran and amputee noticed her wheelchair no longer moved. 

“They bent the metal bracket with the casters,” Duckworth said. “We’re talking about heavy-duty metal. I wonder, how are you managing to break these chairs?”

Last year, Duckworth slipped a provision into the reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration. It requires major commercial airlines to track mishandled mobility aids for the first time. Each month, airlines must tell the DOT how often they gate-check wheelchairs and scooters, as well as how often passengers report those devices as damaged, lost, delayed or stolen. 

That requirement took effect in December, but some airlines reported challenges providing accurate figures that month.

However, between January and August— the latest month for which data is available — U.S. carriers reported having mishandled at least 6,915 chairs. That's an average of 29 times a day. 

While it’s just 1.6% of the chairs and scooters checked on flights, more than a dozen travelers told GateHouse Media that damage to their mobility aids can have significant medical, emotional and financial consequences. Some avoid flying altogether, saying the risks are too great.

“They are essential mobility equipment. It’s important stuff,” said Ben Mattlin, a Los Angeles writer and power chair user. “God, if that many pets were injured every day, it'd be an uproar.”

Duckworth said the general public fails to grasp the severity of the situation when a wheelchair is damaged or lost. 

“Imagine if in a single year (that many) people had their legs broken by an airline as a result of flying,” Duckworth said. “The effect is the same.”

United Airlines did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Not an object

Travelers said people often see their chairs as objects rather than critical, customized extensions of their bodies that enable independence.

“We literally cannot function without them,” said Briar, a video game streamcaster from Nebraska.

Because wheelchairs are not one-size-fits-all, they can take weeks to repair and sometimes cost thousands of dollars to replace a single part. Daily users require devices that routinely cost as much as a car, and the most specialized power chairs might cost as much as a small house.

If the damage from a flight isn’t immediately devastating, or if airlines refuse to pay for repairs, some people said they have lived with broken mobility aids. 

Duct tape holds together a key metal beam of Briar’s wheelchair.

“Because of the nature of the way the chair fits, I didn't realize my seat was missing half of its support until I transferred back into it in the (airport) bathroom,” she said. 

United Airlines nearly lost the metal rod in a plane’s cargo hold, she said, and refused to pay for repairs. Staff members used duct tape to hold the support rod in place instead, she said. 

Noting the prohibitive cost to repair it and the days she’d be without her aid, Briar said, “I’m still using it in that condition.”

Undercount

The real number of mishandled wheelchairs is likely much higher than 29 per day, said advocates for people with disabilities. 

That’s because many passengers don’t formally report damages to the airlines. Other times, the damage might not immediately be apparent.

Eric Howk, a guitarist for popular rock group “Portugal. The Man” flies more than 100 times a year. 

Even though his manual wheelchair is often damaged and delayed while flying, Howk said he never has filed a federal complaint or requested a Complaint Resolution Officer ⁠— staff members trained to resolve disability-related issues. He notes he is lucky to have the physical ability and financial means to fix most damage himself.

That said, he currently sits in a replacement chair provided by Alaska Airlines. 

“I watched a ground crew member snap the back off the chair,” he said. 

Alaska Airlines, which reports damaging fewer than 1% of mobility aids, said in an email that it’s “always committed to improving where we can – especially in this area.”

In the first seven months of this year, American Airlines had the worst record, mishandling 1,846 devices — or 3.7% of all the mobility aids it gate checked. 

“We are working hard to build tools and training so that every wheelchair is returned to the passenger in great condition,” an American Airlines spokesperson wrote in an email. “This data and other information are being used to develop a comprehensive plan for improving the customer experience for the long term.”

Several airlines ⁠— Allegiant, Hawaiin, JetBlue, Spirit and United ⁠—  did not respond to multiple messages seeking comment on the new federal regulations. 

Hope for change

Duckworth hopes the new requirement will help federal regulators better monitor the issue and identify ways for airlines to improve, as well as empower travelers to make informed buying decisions. 

“Ultimately,” she said, “it's about treating medical devices with respect.” 

A USDOT spokesperson said by email that the agency publishes the data in its monthly Air Travel Consumer Report but did not mention any other plans for the new information.

Chair users have their own common-sense solutions they say airlines should adopt, such as adding a special section in cargo holds to safely secure mobility aids away from other luggage. Others said airlines should store folding manual chairs in the cabin rather than the cargo hold — something already required, but rarely followed, under federal rules. 

The most popular solution: Let passengers keep their chairs and sit in them during flights.

“They don’t demand anyone else to put their legs in cargo, but they do when your legs are wheels,” said Jennifer Brooks, a power chair user from Syracuse, New York. 

Some wheelchair users said they are exhausted and skeptical about the likelihood of change.

“There have to be consequences,” said the East Coast cybersecurity expert. “They’ve had anecdotal data for years at this point. … We know what the data says already. We know what's happening. There needs to be some enforcement.”

This story is the first in an ongoing series. Fill out this short form to share your story of flying with a mobility aid or to tell the reporter what questions you would like answered in future stories: http://bit.ly/ChairTraveler.  She also can be reached at jfraser@gatehousemedia.com or 941-361-4923.