Air carriers began reporting damage to wheelchairs last year, and American Airlines has consistently topped the charts as the airline most likely to mishandle your mobility equipment. In the first half of 2019, they mishandled 1,223 wheelchairs and scooters — more than 25% of the total across all carriers.

Three factors contribute to American’s industry-worst performance:

  • Inadequate training — Ramp agents, wheelchair assistance contractors and other airline staff who interact with wheelchairs have not been trained in proper operation and handling techniques, or the training provided was insufficient.
  • Baggage carts with ramps not readily available — Baggage carts equipped with ramps for wheelchair loading are not dispatched to gates where they are needed; there are too few adapted carts to adequately serve the airport terminals where they are used.
  • “D0” directive rushes wheelchair loading — The departure zero directive from corporate leadership encourages baggage handlers to cut corners on the proper handling of wheelchairs and scooters to increase the speed of loading and offloading.

When I boarded an American Airlines flight at New York’s JFK Airport last week, I was thrilled to see a baggage cart with a ramp outside the airplane. My wheelchair would be treated well for a change, I thought.

American Airlines baggage handlers lifting wheelchair at JFK Airport.
American Airlines baggage handlers lifting wheelchair at JFK Airport.

15 minutes prior to scheduled departure, I spotted my wheelchair outside. Rather than using the baggage cart with a ramp for wheelchair loading, the ground crew strained to lift it themselves. They put the chair’s 450 pounds of weight load on its anti-tip casters and hydraulic seat back, a big no-no.

With a ramped cart literally feet away, the wheelchair never had to be taken off its wheels. Exposing a disabled passenger’s wheelchair to unnecessary risk is unacceptable. The crew were clearly rushing to make D0, and this incident highlighted American’s prioritization of on-time departures over the responsible handling of mobility equipment.

With the ground support equipment now available to airlines, including ramped luggage carts, jet bridge luggage elevators and AmbuLifts, there is no reason for wheelchairs to be lifted or taken off their wheels. The scene captured in the photograph above is an example of negligent handling, and American Airlines should take immediate action to ensure proper treatment for all types of mobility equipment.

Flyer beware.

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