Commentary

Airlines Would Rather Apologize than Fix Wheelchair Policies

On social media and in mainstream publications, stories of airlines around the world damaging or losing wheelchairs — as well as mistreating passengers who use wheelchairs — feels like a crescendo. Recent headlines:

Interior of a passenger airplane, looking across an aisle and toward a backlit, round window.

Passenger “Stranded” for 5 Hours After Airline Forgot to Load Wheelchair on Plane: “This Is Not a Lost Bag” 

Qantas Refuses to Pay for Repairs to Wheelchair It Left Unusable When It Was Damaged in Transit

A Congressman Was Barred from His Flight After Airline Staff Thought His Power Wheelchair Violated Safety Regulations 

That last headline referred to Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.), and according to the Business Insider story, this “You can’t fly with those batteries!” mistake has happened to Langevin more than once.

Headlines like these are typically followed by responses that feel copied and pasted from a toothless corporate template.

American Airlines (via People): “We extend our sincerest apologies for our customer’s recent experience.”

Qantas (via Paddle Your Own Kanoo): “Airlines do not accept liability for minor damage to the breaks [sic], wheels, and handles of your wheelchair.”

Lufthansa (via Insider): “…regretful when our standards are not met and errors are made.” (Via Insider)

Damaged wheelchairs are a frequent travel hazard. In 2019, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) began requiring U.S. airlines to report statistics on wheelchairs they lose, damage, or are delayed in returning to passengers. In 2020, the DOT reported that 10,302 wheelchairs in airline custody were damaged or were delayed in being returned. That’s about 28 wheelchairs per day.

And it’s not just American carriers who have this problem. Maayan Ziv, a disability activist in Canada, reported in early September that as she was traveling to Tel Aviv — ironically, to attend a conference on accessible tourism and travel — Air Canada damaged her complex power wheelchair so badly that it was unusable. Social media photos showed a power chair that looked vertically folded in half.

Air Canada’s initial compensation offer was “a $300 E-coupon” from a customer service rep in baggage claim, Ziv said.

Many airlines seem to prefer paying for damaged equipment and issuing generic apologies to creating policies that would actually protect medically necessary wheelchairs and seating. Airlines would rather roll the public relations dice than fix the problem.

So what would change the minds of airlines executives? Maybe nothing short of a full-court press from the public and media.

Several days after Ziv talked about her damaged wheelchair, Carla Qualtrough — a disability advocate, a Member of Parliament, and Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion in Canada — issued a joint statement with the Minister of Transport.

“What Ms. Maayan Ziv recently experienced on an Air Canada flight is completely unacceptable,” the statement said. “This accessibility advocate has taken all necessary measures to prevent this from happening, but Air Canada has not taken the necessary measures on their side to ensure her wheelchair arrives in good condition at her destination. Our government is concerned about the situation, and we have communicated it to Air Canada.”

That’s a start. Ziv said her initial damaged-wheelchair story on social media garnered 54 million impressions in seven days, which possibly spurred Air Canada to agree to pay for the wheelchair’s repairs.

Still, any lessons learned via PR uproars and government involvement can be short lived under current policies.

For example: Earlier this week, Air Canada flew Ziv and her damaged wheelchair home to Toronto. Upon landing, Ziv said via social media, “I was told that my wheelchair was lost and had not been loaded onto the flight.

“Thanks to me putting an AirTag on my own wheelchair, I was eventually able to track down its location. It was on the tarmac in Toronto. No one at the airport was able to communicate this to me for hours. No one from Air Canada apparently knew where my wheelchair was.

“I had to help the airline find my wheelchair.”

About the Author

Laurie Watanabe is the editor of Mobility Management. She can be reached at lwatanabe@1105media.com.

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