The Air Carrier Access Act requires airlines to return personal wheelchairs and mobility devices in exactly the same condition in which they were received and, when damage occurs, to promptly repair or replace the device. Last month, prior to departing for Europe to report on the wheelchair space for airplanes by Delta Flight Products, I shared the story of my power wheelchair on Twitter, a mobility device which has been damaged multiple times by American Airlines.

American Airlines outsources the handling of wheelchair damage claims to a third-party, Global Repair Group, who in turn outsources repairs to local wheelchair repair shops. My case was assigned to Numotion, a national distributor of complex rehab technology.

Prior to the significant damage that occurred on my March 22 flight from Boston to Washington, D.C. (which resulted from the wheelchair not being properly secured in the cargo compartment), multiple claims were already open for damage that had occurred in the months prior. Numotion had previously assessed the wheelchair for those earlier claims, over live video chat and in person, and I was informed that the parts to repair all prior damage were on hand.

When the wheelchair was returned to me on June 3, after Numotion had held it for more than a month, I reasonably expected all of the repairs to have been completed. That proved not to be the case; the majority of the damage caused by American Airlines remained. I tweeted about my experience that day, then followed up with a detailed email sent to Mark Ewing, Director of Customer Relations and Caroline Truelove, the Vice President of Customer Relations for American Airlines. The email documented the damage to my wheelchair and was a plea for immediate action.

A member of the American Airlines customer service team responded to that email, referring me to Global Repair Group, whose agents promised to put the repair contractor back on the case. That did not occur. Now, with yet another month in the books, no further repairs have been made and the wheelchair continues to deteriorate as a result of the damaged components. The wheelchair has been and continues to be unsafe for me to use.

Today, on July 4th — Independence Day in the United States of America — I was scheduled to fly with American Airlines to Sydney, Australia. That trip can no longer go forward due to the state of my damaged wheelchair. The negligence exhibited by American Airlines in the handling of mobility equipment has very real consequences — in this case, the carrier’s decision to ignore the civil rights of disabled passengers under the Air Carrier Access Act has stripped me of my freedom and independence, on the very day our nation celebrates those founding principles.

Failures such as this are not uncommon at American and other airlines. The use of multiple contractors — Global Repair Group and the repair companies they employ — leads to a breakdown in communication and a lack of oversight on the part of the carrier. With so many parties involved, it is difficult for passengers to hold the responsible airline accountable, or for airlines to take accountability themselves. Not even an email to senior leadership at American Airlines could prompt action and, as a result, my plans to travel months after the damage occurred have been put on hold.

Disabled passengers deserve better, but they continue to be left at the mercy of airlines that refuse to do the right thing, third-party contractors accountable to no one, and a Department of Transportation that is reluctant to utilize its enforcement authority. This broken system leaves civil rights undefended, encouraging air carriers to cut corners and ignore regulations while depriving disabled passengers of the right to equal access in air travel.

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