American Airlines and its regional subsidiary Envoy Air had the worst record for damaging passengers' wheelchairs and power scooters in December, while SkyWest and Delta had the best, mishandling less than 1 percent of those transported, according to information now available in a federal consumer air travel report.
Data on mishandled wheelchairs and scooters first appeared in the Air Travel Consumer Report issued in February, the same monthly Department of Transportation report that relays information on flight delays, passenger complaints and animal deaths involving U.S. airlines.
Advocacy groups, including the Paralyzed Veterans of America, have pressed for years that the information be included in the report. The February summary covers the period from Dec. 4-31, 2018. In all, 701 chairs, or roughly 2 percent of the 32,209 transported, were reported damaged.
Shaun Castle, a retired Army sergeant who serves as PVA deputy executive director, said the information is crucial for persons with disabilities in deciding which airlines "will take care of them."
"This is important, not only to the 20,000 members of our organization, but to all people who use a wheelchair or mobility device," Castle said. "When you are trying to decide which airline to fly as a consumer, you want to know if it's friendly to those with disabilities."
Those who require a wheelchair or scooter usually are allowed to travel to their gate in their own chairs but then must be transferred to a special chair to transfer to the aircraft. Their personal devices may be stored in the cabin, if they are collapsible. More often, however, they are stowed with the baggage.
And that’s where the damage can occur, according to Castle.
"I've had to deal with my wheelchair rims being bent or hubs missing parts, side guards damaged," he said. In one instance, he added, his titanium wheelchair’s crossbar was broken, requiring a $2,000 repair.
Damage to power chairs, the type used by many quadriplegics, can run upward of $10,000.
"Knowing which airline is going to take care of me, take care of my equipment, is very very important. ... My wheelchair is my legs. If you break my wheelchair, I can't go anywhere," Castle said.
Disabled passengers are protected by the Air Carrier Access Act, which prohibits airlines from refusing to transport a passenger based on a disability. But under the ACAA, disabled passengers also cannot take legal action against an airline they believe has violated their rights -- they can only file a complaint with the airline or the Transportation Department.
In 2016, more than 26,000 complaints were filed against U.S. airlines by passengers with disabilities. The majority of the complaints involved failures by the airlines to provide assistance or inadequate seating. But nearly 1,200 complaints involved the airlines' handling of an assistance device, including wheelchairs, according to the Department of Transportation.
In his blog on WheelchairTravel.org, John Morris noted that the data published for December doesn't provide a full picture of damage caused to wheelchairs during the month, as the information submitted by Southwest Airlines and American Airlines was incomplete.
"As more data is received and the sample size grows, we should gain a clearer picture of which airlines are treating wheelchairs and scooters with the greatest care and respect and which would be best to avoid," said Morris, who uses a power chair for mobility.
A spokeswoman for Delta Airlines said the company's advisory board on disability has been actively engaged in developing and refining policies affecting customers with disabilities.
"Delta is committed to providing the highest level of care and service to all our customers," Olivia Mayes said. "We are acutely focused on continuous improvement in our assistive device-handling processes, as we know they are critically important to many of our customers."
According to the data, Delta transported the highest volume of wheelchairs and scooters of any of the 12 airlines in the December report: 11,838. It recorded 105 mishaps, the second-to-lowest damage rate reported at .89 percent.
Castle says he looks forward to future reports, which will contribute significantly to protecting consumers with disabilities.
"We hope this accountability will inspire airlines to improve procedures to accommodate the more than 20 million Americans who have mobility disabilities," Castle said.
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