In the United States, more than one in every 100 wheelchairs and scooters transported by airlines in the cargo compartment are damaged, delayed, or lost, according to the Department of Transportation. Every day, it seems there is a story about airlines damaging wheelchairs in the news; one of the most recent being Kim Harrison, whose wheelchair was damaged during a flight to D.C., where she was scheduled to advocate for accessible and safe air travel for people with disabilities.
Many wheelchair users consider their mobility device an extension of their body. When an airline damages a device, they are essentially putting that entire person at risk – as the wheelchair is their only way of moving in the world. Although airlines are required by law to replace a wheelchair, this process can still be delayed, leaving people who use wheelchairs unable to move about independently. Without their own mobility device that is fit to their body and needs, they are left to use a loaner chair provided by the airline – which can be dangerous to use for longer lengths of time, due to an increased risk of pressure sores.
The role that airlines play in keeping everyone safe, regardless of disability, cannot be overstated. And when something goes wrong, airlines should be held accountable. Under the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), airlines cannot discriminate against people with disability; wheelchair users have specific rights when it comes to traveling. Even with the laws in place, traveling can go wrong, but there are ways that individual wheelchair users can help to ensure their devices are not damaged. In this blog post, we will break down some helpful tips and tricks to help you at each stage of travel. Just remember, the suggestions mentioned in this blog post work for some people; not everyone travels the same way.
Before You Leave
Before and after you arrive at the airport, make sure to self-identify as a person who uses a wheelchair, so that everyone you encounter is aware of your needs. While booking your travel, add in your profile that you use a wheelchair – and mention this at every step of the way. Tell them at the check in counter, then again at the gate, and when you ask for an aisle chair.
Using an Air Tag or another tracking device could be helpful to you; pack one with each piece of your medical equipment and attach one to your wheelchair. That way, when you arrive at your destination, you can check to see if your wheelchair has arrived with you.
Take photos of your device before you leave – you can use before and after shots for comparison if something is damaged by the airline.
Know your rights before you leave. Read up on the laws and regulations that are supposed to keep you safe – and keep them as your arsenal if something goes wrong.
Arriving at the Airport
Make sure you have some sort of identifiable card or sign that you can attach to your device that explains how to move it safely; consider translating this card into multiple languages for the crew to read it. For the iBOT® PMD for example, Mobius Mobility includes an Airline Travel Card with the device that explains safety procedures for transporting it.
You can also tag all your equipment as Medical Equipment – this could get the attention of aircraft employees to take special care, and it allows you to transport these items on the aircraft at no cost, as provided by Federal law.
However, it should be noted that a card or sign can only do so much. “Self-advocacy is huge,” Michael Negrete, an iBOT® user, said. “At every opportunity, convey to as many people as you can about your specific needs and how to properly handle your equipment.”
Speaking with the airline team in person is always a good idea and allows you to have greater control over the transportation process. Once at your gate, ask the agent if you can speak with the ground crew/ramp personnel. It is helpful to have an in-person conversation about your needs and the importance of your wheelchair, especially if there are language barriers. You can communicate to them what needs to be done to load the device safely, and identify all lift points, on and off switches, and how to stow it.
Take everything off your wheelchair that you can and take it with you on the plane. For example, remove the cushion, user controller, and other elements, if you need to. The fewer items which the airline has the opportunity to damage, the better.
On the Plane
Under the ACAA, you have the right to board the plane first. Boarding first ensures that you are safe from being accidentally bumped or hit by elbows and legs in the aisle, and to ensure enough time, dignity and privacy when transferring to your seat.
Before transferring to your seat, clearly communicate with the aircraft team your needs and expectations for how you’d like to be moved. Keep in mind that many of these aircraft employees are not always adequately trained to transfer people, because of high turnover rates. This could result in injury or even death. This is why we stress the importance of clear and intentional communication.
Next, inform the flight attendants that you are unable to get up or move. If you are uncomfortable with moving, consider taking a window seat; if you’d like easier access to the restroom, consider an aisle seat. The flight attendants are required and trained to provide assistance to the restroom.
Arriving at Your Destination
Do not exit the aircraft until it is confirmed by a flight attendant or aircraft employee that your mobility device has arrived with the plane and is waiting for you at the gate. Airlines are required to allow you to stay on the aircraft.
By exiting the plane, you are relinquishing any leverage you have over the airline company to ensure your device has arrived safely.
If you experience discrimination or if your wheelchair is damaged or lost – speak up. File a complaint with the Department of Transportation and report the incident. Every airline has a Complaint Resolution Officer (CRO). This is the person you should ask to immediately speak to in the event of any equipment damage, loss, or personal injury.
You can also share your story online and on social media. Connect with others who have experienced the same situations as you. Advocate for better accessibility and safety for all people with disabilities.
Although traveling as a wheelchair user can be daunting, practice and experimentation can help. Ask others with disabilities how they travel and prioritize their safety and wellbeing.
Curious about how the iBOT® travels? The iBOT® has features that make it more travel-friendly, such as an easily identifiable freewheel lever, tie down marks, and a removable user controller. At approximately 270 pounds, the iBOT® is also a much lighter power chair than most models on the market. We can’t wait to see the places you will REACH. CLIMB. GO!
If you are interested in taking a test drive of the iBOT®, contact Mobius Mobility today: firstname.lastname@example.org, or 833-346-4268.