If you're like me, your power wheelchair is a necessity of life and a replacement for your legs. I was apprehensive at first about traveling with a $25,000 wheelchair. What happens if it gets damaged? Will it fit on the airplane? I learned the answers to all of these questions and more - by traveling. In the past two years, I have taken more than 300 flights within the U.S. and abroad - all with my power wheelchair.
Watch this short video, which shows how airlines load powered wheelchairs into the aircraft's cargo hold:
I built this website to empower wheelchair travelers with information, so they could focus less on transportation and more on the destination. I follow multiple blogs, Facebook groups and forums to keep myself abreast of the discussions concerning travel in the disability community. I recently saw this post on Facebook:
Power wheelchairs should not be transported on their sides, as the risk of damage becomes significantly greater. Members of the Facebook group in which this was posted were quick to jump on Delta Air Lines, blaming them for mistreating the chair. Although I have had more than my share of disability service issues with Delta, I was quick to ask the important questions:
- What type of aircraft was this?
- What were the dimensions of the aircraft's cargo hold?
- Were instructions on how to collapse/fold the seat back provided to the airline?
Make sure your wheelchair will fit into the airplane cargo hold.
As comments critical of the airline multiplied, the original poster returned with some additional information:
I didn't have a fit. I didn't scream and rant. I didn't report anyone. On our return flight we requested them not to turn on side and they explained that's the only way it would fit. So I requested to my travel agency that my next trip if we could possibly have a plane that it could sit up right.The reason Delta placed the wheelchair on its side was because it would not fit through the cargo hold door upright. Smaller planes have smaller cargo holds, which means power chairs will have to be collapsed (seatback folded forward/disassembled) or stowed on a side. When planning your next trip, consult my list of airplane cargo hold dimensions.
As wheelchair travelers, we must be adequately informed so that we can understand what to expect throughout the course of travel. The passenger whose Facebook post I copied above was shocked to see their wheelchair loaded on its side, because they were not aware of the varied sizes of cargo holds. I have done my best to provide the pertinent information that wheelchair travelers should know in this website's Frequently Asked Questions section.
Develop a plan for collapsing your wheelchair (if necessary).
If your seatback will need to be folded forward to fit, bring the tools necessary and instruct the airline how to handle the disassembly. They are more than happy to help, and are required to do so by the Air Carrier Access Act.
Given the frequency with which I travel, I worked with my local wheelchair repair shop to fashion a pin that can be easily removed to collapse the seatback. These pins, pictured at the left, have saved me and the airline staff a great deal of time.
Damage to your wheelchair is covered.Many of the post's most negative comments came from people who had heard a story on the news, or from a friend. One lady, from the Northeast United States, wrote that she no longer travels by air, for fear of wheelchair damage:
I won't fly because a friend had his Quantum Edge 600 mangled beyond recognition on an airplane in cargo. I have the same chair. The airlines won't replace a $22,000 chair, even if they did I wouldn't have mine when I arrived. I take the train.
There are a couple things wrong with this comment. First, the Air Carrier Access Act fully protects your mobility equipment. Meaning that airlines operating to, from or within the United States are completely liable for damage to your wheelchair.
In 2014, my equally expensive wheelchair, a Quantum Q6 Edge, was similarly "mangled beyond recognition." It was written off as a "total loss" and the airline responsible (Delta) quickly started the process of ordering a brand-new replacement. While I waited for its delivery, I was given a loaner chair, which was far less specialized for my use and needs.
Before allowing fear to dictate your travel plans, allow me to point out an important fact - the accidents that lead to a wheelchair being inoperable are very rare. In my more than 300 flights since January 2014, my wheelchair has been damaged a handful of times, but only once was I left without the ability to use it. I'll take those odds, and so should you.
Communication with your airline is key.
I reached out to a Delta Air Lines official for comments that I could share with my readers on this topic. Specifically, I asked about ways that passengers and airlines can work together to minimize damage (emphasis mine):
"...engagement with Delta regarding how to best handle and transport a wheelchair would really help us...you know personally that we need specific details on the device and then we need to be able to communicate these details to the next station. Coupled with more training for our people on loading and securing the chair, I’m confident that we will make progress in this area."
As you saw in the video above, there are a lot of people involved in the handling of your wheelchair. Ground staff and gate agents need to be informed on how best to lift your chair. If the wheelchair needs to be collapsed, it will be your responsibility to provide instructions on how to do that. At the end of the day, a wheelchair is baggage, and instructions on its care must come from you, the traveler.
I also spoke to my contact at Delta about the cost of damaging a wheelchair. I received an interesting response (emphasis mine):
"Damage to a customer’s wheelchair definitely impacts the bottom line...As you know, the damage to our brand is far more costly than any expense involving the repair of a chair. What people think of Delta as a high quality airline is everything."
In this social media world, an airline's failure to promptly repair a wheelchair or mobility device could "go viral" in an instant. A recent failure of service by United Airlines in Washington, D.C. went viral, which led me to write a response, 3 Takeaways from United Airlines' Disability Services Failure. Bad PR negatively affects the bottom line, and airlines (typically) try to prevent such situations from arising.
Early this year, at the meeting of the Delta Air Lines Advisory Board on Disability, the airline announced that 3.34 of every 100 wheelchairs transported were damaged in 2014. This figure was much lower than I expected. Contrary to the discussion with disability groups, though, wheelchairs are not "tossed around" like standard baggage. I haven't met a man who can toss a 200-pound powered wheelchair!
Most damage to wheelchairs at airports and on airplanes is accidental. Damage can also be the result of negligence. In the video I shared, you saw a Detroit baggage handler offload my 200-pound wheelchair by himself - that was negligent, and just plain stupid. Power wheelchairs such as mine should be lifted by 4 people, but even then, accidents can happen.
The earlier you inform airlines of your plans to travel with a power wheelchair, the more time they will have to prepare. Similarly, a complete set of instructions for handling your device should be attached to your wheelchair. Handling instructions increase the odds (which are already good!) of your chair coming back in one piece.
Airlines face two costs when they damage mobility equipment: to their financial bottom line and to their reputation. At least with regard to handling your wheelchair, the airlines are not out to cause you harm. The strict requirements of the ACAA ensure there will be an unavoidable cost if your chair is not returned in the same condition.
Have you traveled by air with a power wheelchair?
If so, please share your experience(s) in the comments below!