Wheelchairs damaged by airlines are now documented in DOT statistics, but damage isn’t the only way a wheelchair can be mishandled. Gate-checked wheelchairs are frequently forgotten and left behind, leaving passengers stranded and immobile upon arrival at their destination.

A shocking first

In September 2019, after more than 700 flights as a disabled traveler, my wheelchair was left behind for the first time. Despite being handed over at the aircraft door, the wheelchair was not loaded onto the short American Airlines flight from Dallas to Houston.

Although it was located quickly and arrived on the next flight about 90 minutes later, the wheelchair was returned damaged and my trip to Buenos Aires was delayed by a day. When I asked the airline to explain how and why the wheelchair had been forgotten, there was no answer.

Strike two for American Airlines

Less than 6 months after American Airlines left my wheelchair behind in Dallas, they did it again — in Charlotte. On February 26, after arriving in Washington, D.C. for the Reeve Summit on my 784th flight, airline staff informed me that my wheelchair was not in the cargo hold.

Information about the status of my wheelchair was not as forthcoming in Washington as it had been in Dallas. When the next flight from Charlotte arrived an hour later, my wheelchair was not aboard. It finally arrived nearly four hours after my own arrival, time I spent painfully seated in an airport wheelchair.

Following the ordeal, I asked the airline for answers. How had my wheelchair been left behind and who was responsible? Even after sending an e-mail to the CEO himself, AA still couldn’t provide any information about what happened. “We’re not sure,” an agent told me via telephone.

The odds of two wheelchairs being left behind over 784 total flights suggest that these incidents are rare, but only 318 of my flights have been with AA. By recalculating the odds and simplifying the fraction, it is apparent that American Airlines misplaces my wheelchair once in every 159 flights. Given the extreme hardship associated with stolen mobility, those odds are terrible. But the true reality may be even worse than my calculation…

Detecting a pattern

Wheelchair Travel reader Vanessa Farmer recently contacted me after her wheelchair was similarly mishandled by American Airlines. She traveled from Miami to Portland, with a connection in Charlotte, on April 1.

Vanessa preboarded the airplane in Miami and turned over her manual wheelchair in the jet bridge. She expected to use her wheelchair during a connection of approximately two hours in Charlotte, but it was not delivered to the gate. She was told by staff that her wheelchair would be loaded on the next flight and she would receive it in Portland.

After arriving in Portland, she received news that her wheelchair had been left behind. Because it was after midnight on the East Coast, they would not be able to locate it until the following day. Staff arranged for a loaner wheelchair and she went home, hoping to be quickly reunited with her own.

No news came from American Airlines on April 2 and an email I sent to airline management on her behalf was ignored. On April 3, she took the issue to Twitter and was told that her wheelchair would be delivered that night. She expressed frustration that “it takes me calling them out on Twitter to get a response.” When I asked for more information, she told me that “no one gave any explanation on why it took so long to locate the chair or who was responsible.”

The wheelchair was returned on the night of April 3, nearly 48 hours after she had arrived in Portland. With the airline’s poor communication and lack of urgency, it seems as though Vanessa’s missing wheelchair was treated no differently than any other piece of luggage that is lost or delayed.

Identifying the problem is key

Writer and theologian G.K. Chesterton once said, “It isn’t that they can’t see the solution, it is that they can’t see the problem.”

When responding to a disability complaint, the Air Carrier Access Act requires airlines to provide “a written statement setting forth a summary of the facts and the steps, if any, you will take in response to the violation.” This requirement is set forth so that airlines will identify points of failure and develop strategies to correct them. In the case of American Airlines, they simply state that complaints are “documented and made available to the appropriate station manager for internal investigation and handling.” That’s not nearly enough.

As Chesterton warns, solutions cannot be found without an understanding of the problem. To prevent wheelchairs being left behind, airlines must first ask why it is happening. Based on the incidents recounted here, it appears that disabled passengers are the only people asking that question ⁠— one that American Airlines has repeatedly been unable to answer.

Perhaps, after filing a DOT complaint, they will muster an adequate response.

Has an airline left your wheelchair behind? If so, please share your story in the comments below.

You May Also Like