Roughly 29 Wheelchairs Are Damaged By Airlines Each Day

After a social media video went viral last week showing how wheelchair users can be affected while flying, a report suggests that around 29 wheelchairs are lost, stolen, damaged, or delayed every day. The data came from the US and was first collected in 2019. It suggests that almost 2% of all wheelchairs are damaged while in the cargo hold.

Roughly 29 Wheelchairs Are Damaged By Airlines Each Day
A recent report suggests that around 29 wheelchairs are damaged every day by US airlines. Photo: Getty Images

A viral video

A woman took to social media platform TikTok last week to share her devastation that Delta Air Lines had damaged her wheelchair, which she relies on for mobility. In the video, Gabrielle deFiebre was left sobbing, stating, “This is my life, my legs.”

Ms deFiebre flew with Delta to Phoenix from New York to enjoy a girl’s trip with a friend. She had placed a note on the wheelchair before reluctantly handing it over to Delta staff and using a small airport-provided wheelchair fitting in a standard aircraft aisle. Upon arrival, she transferred back into her own chair. However, she realized immediately that the chair was severely damaged. One wheel was broken and would not move, while the backrest was also damaged.

@briscalesseWhen is this going to stop? ##fyp ##disabilitiyawareness ##wheelchair @geeg_def

♬ original sound – briscalesse

In the video, Ms deFiebre is crying as she is moved back into an airport chair. The friend traveling with her, who also uses a chair, explained the importance of aids like wheelchairs stating it is an extension of her body. Delta staff reportedly told Ms deFiebre that her chair, which was made especially for her, would not be fixed for at least four days.

The airline has since confirmed it is sending two wheel replacements and will be launching an investigation into what happened.

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All major airlines have to do better

But according to the Washing Post, it isn’t just Delta that has fallen short. The results of a US DOT report suggest that around 15,425 wheelchairs or scooters have been lost or damaged since 2018. 2018 was the first year the US government required reporting on this issue. In 2019, the first full year of the reporting, 10,548 were lost or damaged, around 29 each day.

In 2020, this dropped to 3,464, equivalent to just over nine every day. However, this reduction in damages has to be taken in light of the dramatic downturn in air travel over the course of 2020. It doesn’t suggest that the problem has been solved.

For people who use wheelchairs and other mobility devices, damage can cause major issues. In addition, some devices are personalized to the individual, meaning repairs are expensive and take several weeks. During this time, replacement chairs are not as suitable and cause issues.

Roughly 29 Wheelchairs Are Damaged By Airlines Each Day
Delta came under fire in the recent viral video, but the report suggests all major airlines could do better. Photo: Delta Air Lines

For many, the viral TikTok video has exposed the emotional element of traveling with a wheelchair. Quoted in the Washington Post article, Senator Tammy Duckworth, a double amputee, said in a statement in 2018,

Every airline passenger deserves to be treated with dignity and respect, but too often, that is not the case. I know from personal experience that when an airline damages a wheelchair, it is more than a simple inconvenience — it’s a complete loss of mobility and independence. It was the equivalent of taking my legs away from me again.”

In response to the report, both the IATA and Airlines for America said they would seek to do better. The IATA took to Twitter to apologize. They confirmed they would work with people who rely on wheelchairs for mobility to make changes.

Do these figures surprise you? If you travel with a mobility device, we’d really love to hear about your experiences while flying.