Disabled airline customers say wheelchairs are broken, damaged

Image: Courtesy of Engracia Figuero

(ABC News) – Thirty years ago, Engracia Figueroa, 51, was struck by a Bay Area Rapid Transit train that left her with a spinal cord injury and an amputated leg. She now calls her wheelchair a “Extension of his body” – granting him freedom and independence.

But last week Figueroa said she was “deactivated again” when her $ 30,000 wheelchair was mutilated in the hold of a United flight.

“I was heartbroken,” she said when she first saw what she described as her “completely crooked” chair after her flight to Los Angeles. “I just thought that all the independence that I fought for and fought for and successfully survived for almost 30 years a minute, is taken away, and I was completely crippled and traumatized. , as well as injured and exhausted. “

Airlines are required to repair or replace damaged or lost wheelchairs under the Air Carrier Access Act.

“They are trying to fix it,” Figueroa told ABC News, but “there is nothing to fix.”

“The chair is a total loss and to get a new wheelchair it takes two months”, she said.

A United spokesperson said the company has apologized to Figueroa and was “Actively work with the repair company to resolve this issue as quickly as possible”.

She is currently using a loaner chair which she says only allows her to move around her apartment.

“There is no regard or respect for the extension of the human that is on the plane,” she said. “When they see a mobility device, they have to respect it, as if it were a person, because that is what it is – an extension of who they are. And we trust them with the rest of our body.

Figueroa says this is the fourth time his wheelchair has been damaged in flight. She blames a lack of training on how to break down and charge devices.

Towards the end of 2018, US carriers had to start reporting the number of improperly handled wheelchairs and scooters.

In just over two and a half years, airlines have damaged or lost 15,749 wheelchairs and scooters, according to data from the Department of Transportation. In 2019, they mishandled 10,548 mobility devices, or around 29 per day.

Earlier this month, model Bri Scalesse called Delta Air Lines in a now-viral Tik Tok for breaking the frame of her wheelchair. According to Scalesse, the repair company told him the chair could not be repaired and that “It was going to take a long time to replace. “

“I don’t know how I’m going to live my life” Scalesse said in the video, which is now viewed over two million times.

In a statement to ABC News, Delta said they “Work closely with the client to make things go as they please, including a personal apology for their experience with us. “

Videos like Scalesse’s have sparked more interest in accessibility issues than Michele Erwin, founder and president of disability rights group All Wheels Up, has seen in over a decade.

“I don’t think I know a single person who uses a wheelchair who hasn’t had a travel horror story,” said Erwin.

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Image: Ted S. Warren / AP, THREAD S. Warren / AP, FILE

And advocates say airlines are losing potential customers.

“Eighty percent of the wheelchair community doesn’t steal,” she said, “and it’s not just the one person whose wheelchair is damaged, quadrupled, because now that person’s family is no longer traveling.

According to Erwin, in 2016, a major US carrier told him it had spent $ 2.6 million on repairing and replacing wheelchairs. Eight years ago, they had spent just $ 1.6 million.

“In another eight years that number will double again,” said Erwin, “and that’s why I think they want to discuss what All Wheels Up can do to improve accessible air travel.”

She said she had met with representatives from major U.S. airlines and manufacturers to find solutions.

“If they put that money into the actual research to try and set up a wheelchair slot on planes, we could save them millions of dollars, as well as bad press. “ she said.

All Wheels Up is funding and is currently conducting crash test studies with the goal of obtaining Federal Aviation Administration approval for a wheelchair seat on airplanes.

“Every person who uses a mobility device has travel anxiety,” Figueroa said. “You fear losing your independence and becoming disabled again. I’m still saying in the back of my mind – not this time, not this time.

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