Why Airlines Take So Long To Return Wheelchairs

The Air Carrier Access Act affords travelers with disabilities the right to gate-check mobility equipment on flights to, from or within the United States. Airlines must "...provide for the checking and timely return of passengers' wheelchairs, other mobility aids, and other assistive devices as close as possible to the door of the aircraft." Airlines fail to comply with this regulation so often that it is among the 3 Most Violated Accessibility Rules in Air Travel. The question is, why does this happen?

The case of the surprised baggage handler

Information is key in the airline industry. Air carriers maintain manifests of both passengers and cargo, which are used by the destination airport to plan for the arrival of a given flight. Passenger manifests contain more than names—frequent flyer status, meal requests, allergies and special service requests are included as well.

But the same is also true for cargo. Airlines generate a ton of revenue from the transportation of cargo. While airplane baggage compartments contain passengers' luggage, airlines also transport things like postal mail, perishable goods, bulk items and other consumer goods. The type, size and weight of cargo, together with instructions for its handling, is dispatched to the ground crew at the flight's destination.

Wheelchairs and other gate-checked mobility equipment should not only be listed on cargo manifests, but they should be prioritized. Doing so would help airlines comply with the following Air Carrier Access Act regulation:

"In order to achieve the timely return of wheelchairs, you must ensure that passengers' wheelchairs, other mobility aids, and other assistive devices are among the first items retrieved from the baggage compartment."

Moments after an arriving airplane has parked at the gate, ground crew will begin to open the aircraft's cargo doors. Looking out my window, I will often see baggage handlers exhibit frustration, with some even using curse words when they discover my power wheelchair in the hold. They didn't know my wheelchair was on the flight, because it had not been included on the flight manifest. And, as a result, my wheelchair is delayed in its return—a very clear violation of the ACAA (and my civil rights).

U.S. carriers don't have/won't use AmbuLifts

In the United States, the responsibility for returning mobility equipment lies squarely on the shoulders of the airlines. Many foreign carriers have invested in high loaders, also known as AmbuLifts. The AmbuLift is designed much like a catering truck, and it is able to transport wheelchairs and passengers from the ground to the aircraft cabin in an almost barrier-free way.

AmbuLift at Cape Town International Airport in Cape Town, South Africa.
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AmbuLift at Cape Town International Airport in Cape Town, South Africa.

In many foreign airports, like London-Heathrow, AmbuLifts collect powered wheelchairs from the cargo hold and, within a few minutes, deliver it to the 1R or 2R door of the aircraft. The wheelchair is then pushed through the airplane and into the jet bridge, where it can be reconnected with its owner. The process takes less than 10 minutes, if the equipment is in place and the ground crew prepared for the flight's arrival.

U.S. carriers often refuse to use AmbuLifts at the airports the have them, and never use them in the United States. If airlines like American, Delta and United were serious about ACAA compliance, they would have a fleet of AmbuLifts at every major airport in the country.

Improper training, laziness for international arrivals

Upon returning to the United States from abroad, I can't count how many times airlines have told me that my wheelchair couldn't be returned to the gate. The message is the same, regardless of carrier—it must be retrieved at customs/baggage claim, Customs & Border Patrol won't release the chair to gate, etc. These are all lies.

U.S. Customs and Border Patrol will not hold a wheelchair hostage or deny it from passengers who have a legal right (per the ACAA) to receive it at the aircraft. Typically, the baggage handlers put it on a cart and send it to baggage claim, where CBP then holds it until the passenger arrives.

Power wheelchair stored at CBP after Delta Air Lines refused to return it at the aircraft door.
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Power wheelchair stored at CBP after Delta Air Lines refused to return it at the aircraft door.

But, there is no requirement for the airline to send the wheelchair to customs in the first place. They will simply need to call a CBP agent to supervise its transfer from the ramp to the jet bridge. Most airlines are too concerned with going through these steps, and send it to customs to get rid of the problem.

Don't back down. Tell the airline to retrieve your wheelchair. Ask to speak to a CBP agent. Call for a Complaint Resolution Official. Ask to speak with the airline's station manager. And never, ever get off the plane until your wheelchair is delivered to the jet bridge. If you follow these steps and insist on your rights being upheld, you'll get your wheelchair back. It is my view that a U.S. Citizen should never be denied his/her wheelchair and be pushed across the border of his/her own country. Do not allow airlines to dehumanize you in this way.

Airlines are complacent

Before switching to American Airlines, I used to travel with Delta Air Lines and faced ACAA violations on the majority (greater than 50%) of my flights. The most frequently violated regulatory requirement was the "timely return of passengers' wheelchairs."

I wrote the airline countless times, each e-mail outlining the problem, providing suggestions for improvement and containing an offer to help them address it. In addition, I spoke with numerous Delta executives (Senior Vice Presidents!) in-person and face-to-face, alerting them of this same information. Nothing ever got better. And, as far as I know, the executives never took any action in response to my concerns.

The truth is, the airlines haven't been motivated to take action. The Department of Transportation is weak on enforcement, and they rarely take action in response to the violations of the rights of disabled travelers.

Slow return of your wheelchair? Here's what to do.

If the return of your wheelchair has been delayed on arrival, follow these steps to make the airline industry know they are failing travelers with disabilities:

  1. File a disability complaint with the airline directly. This can usually be done through the airline's website via a comment or complaint form. Demand a response, and cite your experience as "a violation of my rights under the Air Carrier Access Act, 14 CFR Part 382." If you include this language, the airline will be required to respond to you in writing within 30 days. An e-mail response is acceptable.
  2. File a complaint with the U.S. Department of Transportation. Instructions on how to do so are available HERE. The airline will then be required to respond to the DOT. Following the airline's response, the DOT will open an investigation and reply to you within 3-4 months with their determination. DOT complaints form the basis of fines levied against airlines for disability discrimination, so this is the most important step!
  3. Bookmark this page and share your story with me. As someone who is fighting the good fight for people with disabilities on a daily basis, I want to hear about the challenges travelers like you are facing. Please share your story about the delayed return of a gate-checked wheelchair in the comments below. I'd also like to know if you were forced to collect your wheelchair somewhere other than at the aircraft door/in the jet bridge.

Bringing light to the many instances of disability discrimination in air travel will increase the pressure on air carriers to comply with the law, advancing our mission of making air travel accessible to everyone.

  • Bob Ramsthal

    John, what do you define as a delay? How long should we wait before getting upset?

    • Hi Bob, what constitutes a violation depends on a variety of factors, but more than 30 minutes from the aircraft door being opened is what the DOT has typically determined to be the maximum allowable time frame (based on my own personal history of DOT complaints).

      However, you can demonstrate that a violation has occurred in other ways, too. For instance, if the wheelchair is not “among the first items retrieved from the baggage compartment,” a violation probably occurred. Of course, you’d have to know which hold your chair is placed in and also have a view of that from your seat on the airplane. How many is “among the first?” There is no set number, but if you see 20 or more bags come out before your chair, that is probably a violation.

      Also, if your wheelchair is removed then left to sit on the ramp while they unload general baggage, that is a definite violation. I really encourage you to report these to the DOT, if it happens to you!

  • BCBud

    Can a passenger not be assisted if need be to the tarmac or wherever the exit tunnel enters the airport terminal to their waiting device as soon as they depart the plane? I travel with a mobility scooter of approved size. I know in Vancouver and in Prince George BC and I assume everywhere those airlines I used (Scare Canada and WestJet- love you WestJet!) travel in Canada it’s sop. At the worst I was with my Multiple Sclerosis they assisted me to the plane’s entrance with a wheelchair up a ramp and helped me to my seat and out if I could not independently walk using the seats to stay upright, Disabled is always first to board and last to leave, here anyway. The arrangements and device info is presented upon check in and confirmed on check out. Very efficient system and I rarely see complaints other than rough handling of devices in Canada.

  • Michelle

    I’ve had multiple issues with airlines. Delta, thus far, is the best one (not saying much, though). With Delta, the main complaint is two fold: 1. timely return of wheelchair which I’ve stopped fighting because it’s just never going to happen, it seems. 2. Returning the chair, still folded up, and not near the door of the plane. The second one, I fought with the about, wrote an email. I got a response that I didn’t like so I wrote them a long email outlining the violations, and that if they did nothing, I could contact the DOT if they prefer. They called me, assured me they’d address the problem, then sent me a gift basket.

    Worse than them is American Airlines/United. I group them together because I had so many delays and issues on this trip that I couldn’t remember which carrier I was flying for each leg (both to/from). They have the same issue with timely return of the chair. I’m always the last one on the plane so I tend to allow for longer layovers to account for this. The bigger issues with them. 1. I was at a small connecting airport and the desk agent boarding was trying to board the priority/concierge members first. I informed her that she’s violating Federal regulations. She informs me she’s not and must board them first. I told her no, gave her my pass, and went on down the jet bridge. Not even 1/4 of the way down, she starts calling zone 1. I asked the flight attendant to stop them so I could board and she did. 2. My flight got delayed so we landed late. My second flight was slightly delayed. By now, my battery was dying on my chair so I pulled up to a gate. The woman was nice, called for one of the carts to take me. We waited and waited, she kept calling them (while she was boarding another flight). They kept saying they were coming right away. After over an hour, we finally flag one down, and were told nobody called him to come get me. I missed my flight because of this.

    If you want more experiences, I’ll try to think of some others. I know there’s more that I’ve forgotten. It’s sad to have had so many problems with airlines when I’ve only been in a wheelchair for 2 years.

    • I pointed out in an earlier article (https://wheelchairtravel.org/most-violated-air-travel-accessibility-rules/) that American Airlines has a policy of boarding Concierge Key members before PWDs. I hadn’t experienced it at the time, but have since, and am waiting on the DOT ruling. AA managers have told me that corporate has told them that boarding elite members and first class passengers before PWDs is acceptable. I believe it is a clear violation of the law. I hope the DOT will stand with me.

      • Michelle

        I can’t remember if it was American or United, but I think it was American cause I believe she was boarding concierge. We filed a complaint with United because that was my initial carrier. I only ended up on American because of United’s many, many delays. We reported it to United who did not think it was acceptable. I agree with you, John. It’s a very clear violation of the law, and I hope DOT stands with you, as well!


    I’m getting so angry reading this story! I wish I could help and very much will, if I can ever afford to travel! Good luck with changing they way “we” are forced to travel!!!

  • Acacia

    Wow… I travel half a dozen times a year, or more, and never knew that the powerchair had to be one of the first items out of the baggage area! This infuriates me because 100% of the time my chair is first in and last out. I’ve nearly missed connections because of this or because they tried to refuse to bring me my chair and told me they’d wheel me to my connection and move the chair directly to the next plane. I sat there arguing with them that they HAD to bring me my chair until they finally did and then I had to race through the airport and just made it right before they closed the gate. I’m ALWAYS waiting a minimum of 20 minutes on propeller planes (I live in a small town and often fly in and out of the regional airport) and 30-40 minutes on larger ones. I’m flying again in September and this will definitely be life changing information. Thank you!!

  • Brenda

    My God people. Really? Everyone wants to be treated equally, until they are. Then they complain that they aren’t getting special treatment for their handicap. smh I travelled with my wheelchair-bound son, and planned ahead for delays like you are complaining about. It’s pathetic to complain about something you could have planned ahead for, didn’t, and then have problems. I don’t expect special treatment for my son just because of his handicap. To expect that, is just sad. It goes against wanted to be treated equally. Pick one.

    • I don’t think anyone is asking to be treated any differently than the law requires. Wheelchairs have to be returned as quickly as possible, period. Instead, we see them taken out last from the cargo hold, left to sit on the ramp for 5, 10, 15, 20 minutes (sometimes in the rain-personal experience), etc. Whether it is a connection that needs to be made, a pit stop to the bathroom, lunch at a restaurant, drinks in the airport lounge – whatever – people depend on the prompt return of their mobility equipment. More of us should be complaining when it isn’t. Being meek in the enforcement of our civil rights further entrenches the problem.

      • Brenda

        So are there laws protecting the other items being left on the ramp for however long? Probably not. And, if there are not laws, we should make them to protect the ‘regular’ items. No exceptions. Right? Not just for mobility equipment. What makes it more important than someone’s luggage? Nothing. But, there are LAWS. The laws, and peoples’ expectations are exactly what I am talking about. People complained enough that there are laws that force others to treat them ‘extra special’. Try living in China. I took my son to China, more specifically Beijing. Handicap accessible is NOT something they do there. By complaining here, and forcing laws to be put into place, it is demanding to be treated differently. I got along just fine in China. If I couldn’t get my son somewhere because of stairs and no ramp/elevator, we didn’t go. Simple as that. It is your right to complain, however. I don’t believe it is a civil right to expect everyone to conform to your wants and needs. Unfortunately, more and more people expect the government to take care of their wants and needs.

      • Brenda, I am sorry you feel that way. All civil rights are laws – they are not human rights. Your civil voting right is based upon law. The fact that your son’s wheelchair is able to fit through doorways in America is guaranteed by the very same laws that you curiously decry.

        Yes, I will fight to uphold the rule of law with respect to civil rights in America. There is no shame in that. And yes, the mobility devices that allow people to ambulate or move are a priority. The only people I have heard argue otherwise are airline executives and lobbyists.

        I don’t feel as though I am being treated “extra special” by being guaranteed the right to access public accommodations. In fact, laws like the ADA and ACAA ensure that everyone receives equal treatment and access.

      • Brenda

        As you just stated “In fact, laws like the ADA and ACAA ensure that everyone receives equal treatment and access”, but previously stated “the mobility devices that allow people to ambulate or move are a priority”…So, ‘normal’ people are being discriminated against? Putting yourself before them? Do you see the point I am trying to make? It’s a catch 22. Really, I do see where you are coming from, I do. I just don’t get upset and get my panties in a wad when I have to wait a little longer, or take a different route because my son’s chair doesn’t fit. It does no good, and only frustrates everyone involved in the process. Planning ahead, and checking and double checking airlines and airports helped me avoid more situations that we ran in to during our trips.

      • Brenda, I don’t see those two statements as contradictory. No other passengers are inconvenienced when wheelchairs are delivered. And, on mainline aircraft, there are no other gate-checked bags to return. All passengers’ checked luggage receives the same priority, and will be transported either to baggage claim or the connecting flight.

        The issue is not about waiting “a little longer,” but in the excessive wait times that are all too common. While 30 minutes is the generally accepted baseline for a violation to occur, many of us have waited hours on occasion. There is no situation where that is OK.

        I think we disagree on the point that equal access should be a civil right. You have questioned laws like the ADA and the ACAA, but they are core components of a society that believes all people are created equally. You are of course free to lobby your representatives to repeal the ADA, and I would respect your right to do so.

        You’ll never see me complain about the small things, like a toilet seat being an inch too high or too low, but I will pay attention to the civil rights violations that can result in negative consequences for people. We have a law, and it should be enforced.

      • Patrick Cockayne

        Sorry to butt in here … I think the term equity is useful (as in “leveling the playing field”). Being treated “equally” does not accommodate important and consequential differences that seriously affect quality of life and ability to function optimally, and need not. Hence the laws, regulations and SOPs designed to ensure equity. These only make sense if they are rigorously observed. It’s not rocket science to bring a device to the aircraft door, in good time, and not to the carrousel.

      • Brenda Haggett

        Wow, I’m honestly appalled as a mother of a disabled son as well that you are really truly thinking this way. I’m hoping it is because you are honestly ignorant to the fact that you have abilities that you take for granted that you are ABLE to get on and off that plane for your son and get that wheelchair for him and take him where you want to take him when you want to go. For a second, put yourself in his shoes, without YOU! Take yourself out of the equation and let’s see how you feel about him waiting 30 minutes for his chair. You seem to forget that we as their caregivers are what and who make their world EQUAL! When he gets older, LAWS are what makes his world equal, when we are not there to be his legs and advocate for him. CHairs being brought off the plane first os not some sort of advantage, it is a level playing field. Try sitting in your son’s sit for a day and see how many times people hit you with their purses, or luggage, or kids wack you with their flailing hands or stare at you because they are at eye level. Then try to navigate through the masses of people not looking down because people are ever so aware of their surroundings. NOT! Please take a minute and truly step back and look at the PRIVILEDGE that your son lives in with you as his caregiver and that will not be the case when he is older and must navigate the world on his own. Instead of attacking your child’s future self maybe take a long look at what his life is actually going to face and try to see what you can do to help make things better in that future world.

      • Sylvia Curbelo Longmire

        Wow. Your complete lack of empathy, especially considering you have a disabled child, is blowing my mind right now. How lucky for you that you have the privilege to stand up and get off the plane whenever you want. How lucky for you that you’re satisfied with not going somewhere or allowing your son the joy of exploring the world by taking advantage of laws that allow us the same access as people who can walk. I’m so grateful that I get the “special“ treatment of getting stared at, ignored, treated as if I’m invisible, and routinely pity because I can walk. I imagine you would love to get that special treatment for your son as well. It is so incredibly insulting that you think the actions able-bodied people have to take in order for us wheelchair users to do the same things as everyone else are considered special or exceptional. Without my mobility device, I am trapped. I am useless. I cannot move. I am helpless. Please tell me how giving me my freedom to move by bringing me my mobility aid is somehow giving me special treatment. Because during that time that I’m just sitting there on the plane, I can’t use the bathroom. I can’t eat. I can’t go to my next gate to make my connection. And other words, things that people who can walk can do whenever they want. And please don’t talk to me about planning ahead. I’ve been to 17 countries just this year and I’m also a travel agent, so I’ve spent years and have made it my job to plan ahead. I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but you can’t plan for everything. Like the airlines breaking your equipment. Like hotels screwing up and not having an accessible hotel room ready for you, which means you either can’t use the bathroom or can’t take a shower. You know, things that normal people can do in a regular hotel room. And yes, I have an incredibly positive attitude about the unexpected or else I would just be sitting at home feeling sorry for myself and would never go anywhere otherwise. That doesn’t mean that I don’t fight for my legal rights to be treated the same as an able-bodied person and be given access to the same things as an able-bodied person. I’m a mother of two children, and in all honesty, I feel sorry for your son that he doesn’t have a mother who is more willing to fight for his ability to move and travel and just exist like everyone else. Shame on you.

  • Patrick Cockayne

    John … thanks for this. I wonder how you fared on your trip to Joburg (my town) and Cape Town. In my own experience Cape Town International handles passengers in wheelchairs better than OR Tambo – I can’t work out why. Maybe because Tambo is a much bigger and busier airport. In both cases wheelchair handling and assisted boarding and disembarkation are outsourced to international companies e.g. Swissport (SAA) and Bidvest (BA) using what you term AmbuLifts and what are here called PAUs (Passenger Assistance Units). This sometimes has the effect of enabling blame-shifting when the wheelchair is not delivered to the ramp/gate on arrival but sent to the caroussel – despite labelling that states that the chair should be delivered to the aircraft door. It’s a constant battle. I have sent endless messages to countless officials, without success … the communications dissipate into the ether. I agree with your position that it is about communication with the ground crews at both the departure and the destination airports, especially the latter. If ground crews are alerted and they are trained to know what is expected, there is no good reason why the process shouldn’t work seamlessly. So far my best experience has been with Air Berlin, flying from Berlin to Krakow and back sin January this year. I’m really sad to learn that they are ceasing operation … probably because it cost them too much to care !! It would be interesting to learn what their protocols and SOPs are.

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