This edition of the Reader Mailbag is focused on how airlines care for wheelchairs during inclement weather.

Every so often, I’ll dip into the mailbag to answer questions about accessible travel from readers just like you. If you have a question you’d like answered, send an e-mail to mailbag@wheelchairtravel.org.

The following question was submitted by Ed from Alpharetta, Georgia. He wrote:

We travel frequently with my Permobil F3 and had a new experience arriving in ATL from DFW. There was a rainstorm, and after the standard 30 minutes, the chair arrived at gate 100% soaked. Somehow, the system wasn’t shorted out, but I worry about longer term damage? How difficult would it have been to have basic small tarps to cover power wheelchairs?

As someone who has been though my fair share of rainstorms while traveling, I make every reasonable effort to avoid getting myself or my wheelchair wet. I especially dread flying on a rainy day, because I know airlines prioritize keeping mobility equipment dry during loading and unloading.

What airlines should do to prevent water damage to wheelchairs

Keeping wheelchairs dry isn’t difficult, as airlines could certainly cover wheelchairs with tarps to shield them from rain, sleet or snow. Tarps are inexpensive — just $6.99 from Amazon — but I have only seen them used for this purpose once… at an airport in Europe.

Airline baggage cart with a folding ramp attached to the side. Wheelchair icon painted on end of cart.

Some airlines already have the technology to protect wheelchairs from the rain: baggage carts with ramps. By using such a tool, baggage handlers can roll the wheelchair from the cargo hold, down the belt loader and straight into the cart, where the covering will keep the device dry. Why more carriers are not using this tool, which also ensures that a wheelchair never has to be lifted during loading, remains a mystery.

Because wheelchairs are often removed from the cargo hold and left exposed while other baggage is offloaded, uncovered wheelchairs are nearly guaranteed to get a bath during a rain shower. If the passenger has left their seat or backrest cushions on the wheelchair (as I often do), those foam and fabric coverings will soak up large amounts of water.

When this has happened to me in the past, the flight attendants have generally been able to provide some blankets for me to sit on top of. The good news is that rain has not damaged my chair’s electronics (yet) – the bad news is that it can take a few days for a seat cushion to dry out.

What can be done to combat airline inaction?

The Air Carrier Access Act directs airlines to “return wheelchairs, other mobility aids, and other assistive devices to the passenger in the condition in which you received them.” In my view, a wheelchair with cushions and surfaces that have been exposed to water is returned in a distinctly different condition. Wet does not equal dry.

Given the concern that an electronic wheelchair could present issues after coming into contact with water, I recommend that passengers file a damaged wheelchair report at the airline’s baggage service office (located in the baggage claim area). Notify the airline that, due to their improper handling of the chair, it was exposed to a significant amount of water which could lead to technical faults. It is the passenger’s right to have incidents documented in case there is any damage, electrical or otherwise, that does result.

If wheelchairs that have been unnecessarily left out in the rain begin appearing in the U.S. DOT’s report on damaged wheelchairs, perhaps airlines will correct the problem by investing in a tarp or two?

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