- Airlines break thousands of wheelchairs, scooters, and other mobility equipment per year.
- A broken wheelchair impacts a disabled person's mobility, independence, and quality of life.
- Disability advocates are working to allow wheelchairs on flights and make planes accessible.
- Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.
The day before his flight from Minneapolis to Orlando to speak at a conference, author, YouTuber, and president of Laughing At My Nightmare Shane Burcaw posted a message on Instagram begging Delta not to break his wheelchair.
"My wheelchair gets damaged often enough that every flight I take feels like a terrifying gamble," Burcaw, who makes videos about disability and relationships with his wife Hannah Aylward, told Insider. "I'd estimate there has been damage on 60% of the flights I've taken, but every trip I nervously hold my breath and expect the worst."
When Burcaw and Aylward boarded their flight, airport workers took his wheelchair to the cargo hold, as is standard procedure. Upon landing, Aylward filmed for the couple's channel, Squirmy and Grubbs, as she retrieved the wheelchair. One of the footrests had broken off, the seat was stuck in its fully leaned-back position, and it wouldn't turn on.
"When Hannah said my chair wasn't turning on, I immediately began running through worst case scenarios," Burcaw said. "What if we can't get to the speaking engagement? What if we can't even leave the airport? What if I'm without my chair for days or weeks?"
Airlines break thousands of wheelchairs and scooters every year
To board a plane, wheelchair users must surrender their devices, which are often custom made and cost tens of thousands of dollars, and hope that airlines return them from the cargo hold intact. Oftentimes, they don't, leaving passengers stranded or waiting months for repairs. Activists and politicians are fighting for change, advocating for accessible airplanes that allow passengers to stay in their wheelchairs on flights and prevent damage from happening in the first place.
Airlines weren't legally required to report damages to mobility equipment until December 2018, when Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth, who uses a wheelchair herself, added a provision into the FAA Reauthorization Act. In the first full year of tracking incidents, the Department of Transportation found 10,548 wheelchairs or scooters were "mishandled" in 2019. That's about 29 damaged, delayed, lost, or stolen wheelchairs every day.
That number decreased to 3,464 devices in 2020 – about 9.5 per day – as the coronavirus pandemic halted travel plans.
In the first quarter of 2021, airlines reported 712 mishandled wheelchairs or scooters – almost eight per day. Spirit Airlines had the highest percentage of incidents, damaging 2.88% of enplaned wheelchairs and scooters, followed by JetBlue (2.27%), American Airlines (1.57%), and Frontier (1.55%).
Emily Ladau, a disability advocate and author of "Demystifying Disability: What to Know, What to Say, and How to Be an Ally," says these numbers are likely underreported since it's often faster for wheelchair users to handle the repairs themselves.
"Rather than following all of the channels and hoops that you need to jump through in order to report the issue and get the airline to support you in fixing it, I feel like a lot of people just want to get out of there and deal with someone who they already work with to fix their wheelchair, and not spend hours in the airport or hours on the phone fighting with people," she said.
That's what Burcaw and Aylward did in Orlando. After two and a half hours of waiting for Delta's repair company, Burcaw says he and Aylward found a technician from the conference they were scheduled to speak at who successfully talked them through the repair over the phone.
A Delta representative told Insider in a statement that Burcaw's wheelchair "was fully working approximately one hour after his arrival."
"We're sorry about this customer's experience after he arrived on a flight to Orlando when the power supply circuit breaker on his intact wheelchair needed to be reset," the statement said. "Our teams were supporting him and his party throughout their travels including troubleshooting assistance at his direction."
A broken wheelchair impacts a disabled person's mobility, independence, and quality of life
"I think that there's a lack of taking it seriously when it comes to handling mobility equipment and not recognizing that this thing that you're throwing around is someone else's lifeline and their source of movement and freedom," Ladau said.
In May, a video posted to TikTok showed Delta passenger Gabrielle DeFiebre sobbing at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport after her custom-made wheelchair was returned broken after a flight. The text over the video read, "Today my heart broke watching my best friend sob because Delta broke her wheelchair. She kept repeating, 'this is my life. This is the only way I can live my life.'" The video amassed over 16 million views.
Delta apologized for the incident, telling Insider in a statement that they were working with DeFiebre to repair her wheelchair and were conducting a full investigation.
Cory Lee, founder of the Webby Award-winning accessible travel blog Curb Free with Cory Lee, has traveled to 37 countries and all seven continents, but he says his $35,000 wheelchair comes back damaged after about 25% of his flights. The day Insider reached out, in fact, he said he found his wheelchair's right armrest and operating joystick broken and dragging on the ground after a Delta flight home from a trip to the Adirondacks.
"We knew within 10 seconds of seeing the chair that it was totally damaged and not going to be working," Lee said. "We used duct tape to tape the armrest to the chair, and that's still kind of holding it in place. But the joystick keeps flipping a little bit, so it's not the easiest to drive with it like this. And it is hurting my independence today, a lot, because it's not easy for me to move around as it should be. I'm still dealing with the effects of it."
Lee said Delta apologized and would cover the cost, but had no way of knowing how long the repairs would take.
"It could be a few days. It could be a few weeks. And in some cases I've heard from other wheelchair users, it could even be a few months," he said. (Delta ended up sending a repair person to Lee's home nine days later.)
A Delta representative told Insider: "We consider a wheelchair as an extension of a person and understand that any mishandling of this mobility device directly impacts their daily living. We are affirmatively working with the customer to make things right. We're sorry for this customer's experience. 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."
Activists and politicians are working to make air travel more accessible, but progress is slow
From lengthy boarding and deplaning to inaccessible airplane bathrooms, broken wheelchairs are just one of many difficulties disabled passengers face while flying.
"Every part of the process is, I would say, significantly more complicated simply because you're a wheelchair user," Ladau said. "And I think that much of this could be avoided if they would actually make progress on allowing wheelchair users to sit in their wheelchairs on the airplane."
Michele Campanelli-Erwin is working towards this goal as the president and founder of All Wheels Up, the only organization crash-testing wheelchairs and wheelchair tie-downs for commercial flight.
Aviation standards require airplane seats to withstand forces of 16 Gs, or 16 times the force of gravity. Wheelchairs and wheelchair-restraint systems in cars, buses, and trains exceed that standard, but Campanelli-Erwin says they aren't allowed on planes because the aviation industry has not invested funds in testing and certifying wheelchairs for air travel.
"We're funded $25 at a time from every wheelchair user who wants to see this happen," she said. "Airlines aren't out to purposely damage someone's wheelchair, but they certainly like to stay within the box that they're given."
All Wheels Up funded the first wheelchair crash test in 2016 and brought the findings to Congress, who paid the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to conduct a feasibility study for in-cabin wheelchair restraint systems. The results, which will determine the future of this research, are due in August.
In March, Sen. Tammy Baldwin and Rep. Jim Langevin introduced the Air Carrier Access Amendments Act of 2021, which includes legislation to ensure "proper stowage of assistive devices in the cargo hold to prevent damage." It would also require the Department of Transportation to establish civil penalties for violations, establish a private right of action for plaintiffs, and require new airplane designs to improve the accessibility of seats and bathrooms.
Advocates like Burcaw, Ladau, and Lee hope they'll eventually be able to roll onboard an airplane without leaving their wheelchairs and risking damage to their devices – or themselves.
"It will take time and money to make these conversions and to develop the protocol, but the work needs to begin," Burcaw said. "It's not an unsolvable problem, but the powers that be need to want to solve it."