Moments away from pushing back from the gate on my American Airlines flight from Gainesville, Florida to Charlotte, North Carolina, a manager stepped aboard with a troubled look on his face. He approached my seat and, leading with an apology, delivered the sad news that my power wheelchair had been dropped during loading into the aircraft cargo hold.
Gainesville, Florida is my home. Its airport is small — recently expanded from 3 to 5 gates and served by only two airlines, American and Delta, with a limited number of daily departures. From the airline staff to TSA agents and even the airport janitors, I know just about everyone — and everyone knows me. I love my home airport — it is clean, modern, efficient and staffed by an incredible group of people who are truly the best in the business.
The American Airlines team in Gainesville handles my wheelchair more than any other, oftentimes multiple days a week. They’ve loaded and unloaded it safely more times than I can count and always treat it with the care it deserves.
When it became clear that my wheelchair was not only damaged but totaled — it has a bent frame, broken wheel and is no longer able to power on — I was surprised. “That never happens here,” I thought. But, in that moment, I deeply inhaled the recirculated cabin air and said, “OK, no problem, I will deplane and we can figure this out after the flight departs.”
One of the first questions I asked was, “is everyone on the ramp OK?” They were. Fortunately, no one was injured when the wheelchair fell from the belt loader. The manager saw it tipping and rightly told everyone to clear out. As important as it is for passengers’ wheelchairs to be safely handled, they are replaceable machines — it’s not worth someone being hurt or worse in a failed attempt to save it.
Many times, when wheelchairs are damaged by airline personnel, it is due to a lack of training in the proper handling of mobility equipment or, dare I say, sheer negligence. Who can forget the article I shared in 2019, Everything You Need to Know About Wheelchair Handling at American Airlines in One Photo. While mistreatment of passengers’ wheelchairs may be the norm at other airports, that is not the case in Gainesville. In the small airport environment, no one is a stranger and wheelchairs are respected as an extension of the passenger.
I knew, from the moment I was informed of my wheelchair’s untimely demise, that it was a true accident. An honest mistake by good people whom I trust.
After I had disembarked from the aircraft, the captain met me in the jet bridge to offer a sincere apology. I reassured him that I was in good hands, defended the AA team who I know so well, and assured him that I was not upset. “Accidents happen,” I said, as I shrugged my shoulders.
In the terminal, the local AA team offered a chorus of apologies, helped me into an airport wheelchair, and saw to it that I was situated in a comfortable location. They repeatedly checked on me while organizing a loaner wheelchair and made an effort to ensure that my needs were met.
My wheelchair is destroyed and the situation is not ideal. I would never, nor do I intend to discount the real dangers presented by an incident like this. It was not that long ago that beloved disability rights advocate Engracia Figueroa lost her life after United Airlines negligently mishandled her wheelchair. Wheelchairs are critical devices that provide for the mobility, independence and health of disabled people, myself included. All of that is very real, and I am no less affected by my wheelchair being destroyed in Gainesville than I would be at any other airport.
It is a terrible situation to be in, but I have experienced it before: over the past eight years, my wheelchair has been written off as a total loss three times previously by three different airlines. While that sounds like a lot, today would have been my 916th flight as a wheelchair user. Four destroyed wheelchairs in 916 flights amounts to a 0.4% chance of the worst-case scenario. I’ll take those odds in order to see and experience the world.
My reaction is different today because I have no doubt in my assessment that this was an honest mistake. Those responsible are people I trust, and the accident did not occur because of any negligence or lack of concern for me or my wheelchair. The local AA team’s response, their repeated apologies and expressed regret, was evidence to me of that fact.
Although my travel has been disrupted, my trip delayed and my wheelchair damaged beyond repair, I look forward to my next Gainesville departure. In the coming days, I’ll work with the airline’s corporate baggage team to sort out the situation — I’ll expect to be made whole, as the law requires, and will await a check issued for the value of my wheelchair. With that, I’ll be able to start shopping for a new set of wheels.
If you have a favorite brand or model of wheelchair, I’d love to hear your recommendations in the comments below!