Dear Airlines: You’re Making Wheelchair Users Terrified of Flying

I was 16 years old when I took my first plane ride. It wasn’t anything scary or special, but I’ve spent my life since with a moderate fear of flying. It’s just a control issue, and it’s pretty common; roughly 13 percent of Americans are afraid of taking to the sky. However, now that I’m a full-time wheelchair user, giving you my money to potentially destroy my mobility equipment, injure my body, and ignore my legal and human rights has become a necessary evil. In fact, the way you regard passengers with physical disabilities has terrified some of us so much that we refuse to fly at all.

As much as I’d love to drive a car or ride a train to everywhere I want to go, that’s just not possible in my line of work. Travel is my job, but it’s also my passion and my addiction. I’m privileged to have the ability to see the parts of the world that are wheelchair accessible, but I despise the fact that I have to turn over my freedom, my independence, and my body over to you in order to do that. I’m not sure you understand what this feels like for us, so I’ll try to explain it in a way that’s more relatable for you.

The dreaded aisle wheelchair

Imagine that you’re going on a family vacation to Hawaii with your spouse and children. You arrive at the airport, check your bags, get your boarding passes, and go to your gate. You haven’t had anything to drink or eat for the last 12 hours so you don’t have to use the lavatory on the plane, so you’re pretty hungry. You get to board first so that you have more time to get situated, but also so dozens of strangers don’t stare at you while getting rolled down the aisle strapped to a chair like Hannibal Lecter. Once you get to your seat, the flight attendants duct tape you to your seat—because you can’t get up or go anywhere for the duration of the flight.

Several hours later, you’re sure it’s all worth it because you’re in Hawaii! You gather all your things, round up the spouse and kids, and head towards the door of the plane. That’s when a member of the ground crew slams you in the kneecaps with a two-by-four. Repeatedly, to the point where both of your legs are broken. This is the point where you discover that your vacation is over before it starts. This is what it’s like for a wheelchair user to arrive at their destination only to discover that their wheelchair or scooter has been damaged to the point of being unusable. These are our legs. And you keep breaking them.

Airplane lavatories are usually a no-go

But this scenario isn’t over yet. Surely the person who broke your legs will be arrested or held accountable in some way. First, understand that unless you go to the media, no one will ever know that your legs got broken on an airplane because you don’t keep track of injuries like that. Second, you and the airport will blame each other for your broken legs. Third, IF your complaints are found to have merit, you will likely be compensated with only a travel voucher for a future flight or frequent flier miles, and the airline you flew on probably won’t even get fined. Fourth, you can’t sue for damages.

Based on the way your current system works, our freedom, our independence, our legs, mean less to you than suitcases filled with clothes and toothbrushes—things that can easily be replaced. You track those. You know exactly how many get lost. You know exactly how many get damaged. Thanks to your lobby groups, you keep delaying legislation that will require you to track damage and loss of wheelchairs so we can finally get an accurate picture of how serious this problem is. The fact that you don’t want the world to know those numbers tells me you’re worried.

The fear of wheelchair users when it comes to flying doesn’t stop at equipment damage. We’re terrified of being injured by poorly trained airport personnel trying to “help” us transfer to the aircraft seats. We’re terrified of having an accident on the plane because there are no aisle chairs on board most US domestic flights, or no accessible lavatories we can use even if we could get to them. And there’s more. Here are some quotes from real wheelchair users who want you to know why they’re afraid of flying.

  • “The aisle chair makes me feel like a prisoner.”
  • “I’m afraid of them touching and hurting my daughter because she has a G-tube and port.”
  • “I fear that my client will not have use of the $50,000 tool that serves as his legs, his mobility, his freedom…”
  • “I’m afraid of having my disability questioned.”
  • “I’m afraid of having an accident because I can’t use the lavatory.”
  • “I felt like a piece of meat being manhandled into a window seat so others could get out faster in an emergency.”
  • “I’m scared of being trapped in a strange city without the ability to move.”
  • “I refuse to fly because of my fears of being stuck somehow without help. I used to travel a lot, but not anymore.”
How to Prepare for Potential Wheelchair Damage When You Travel
The maintenance crew at Ljubljana airport fixing my scooter tire

This isn’t the first time I’ve written about you. A few months ago, I shared some reasons why I think you don’t care about wheelchair users. I hate to be so cynical, but you haven’t done much to prove me wrong. You keep breaking our legs, and you keep violating laws like the Air Carrier Access Act that gives us some modicum of rights and dignity. People with disabilities have over $17 billion in disposable income that we spend every year just on travel. I give some of it to you because I have no choice. I have an amazingly rich life because of the things I’m able to see in this world as a wheelchair user, and it angers me to no end that many people like me are missing out on these experiences because they’re terrified—of you.

I’m an Air Force veteran and a professional analyst, which means I don’t like presenting problems without proposing solutions. Despite the fact you keep demonstrating your lack of interested in making air travel easier for us, I’m going to lay out some ideas for you.

  • Push for expedited passage of the Air Carrier Access Amendments Act
  • Push for expedited implementation of the U.S. Transportation Department rule that would require airlines to track data on lost or damaged wheelchairs and scooters in the same way that carriers report lost or damaged luggage.
  • Allow frequent wheelchair travelers to assist in training airport ground crew who handle mobility equipment
  • Allow wheelchair users to assist in training airline employees about our needs during air travel
  • Ensure all flight attendants have experience/practice in using on-board aisle chairs to transport disabled passengers safely to the lavatory
  • Stop treating us like baggage and start seeing us as human beings

We’re tired of seeing our extremely expensive power wheelchairs smashed to bits. We’re tired of enduring the bruises and broken bones that sometimes come from just getting into a seat. We’re tired of having to “hold it” for endless hours. But most of all, we’re tired of being terrified to fly.


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  1. Heather Merrell

    The last time I flew, my wheelchair was loaded onto a conveyer belt and was tipped over on it’s SPOKES as it was loaded on the plane. The brakes were not set. My chair spun around on its axle, wobbling, as it was carried down the conveyer belt. I watched helplessly from my seat on the plane not knowing if my chair would fall off the belt or be damaged because it was tipped over on its spokes with hundreds of pounds of luggage dumped on top of it!

  2. madmama

    They lost my husband’s wheelchair (which was supposed to be gate checked) at Heathrow. Luckily, it was at the end of our trip, so he wasn’t stranded in Italy without it. They did replace it – later.

  3. Kathryn Fierro

    Just yesterday I flew on Alaska Airlines from Anchorage to Milwaukee with an aircraft change in Seattle. I am happy to report they once again took great care of me and my scooter. I rode my scooter to the end of the jetway and was very professionally and comfortably transferred to an aisle chair and my seat. Both ground crew and flight attendants asked appropriate question like “how can we best help you, will you need the onboard aisle chair to the lavatory, how can we help you best in an emergency, and is there anything else you need?” I was even asked if I needed any other help while in the terminal.
    I have MS and have used my scooter on Alaska at least a dozen times on varied days of good and bad, alone or with family. I have had walkers damaged but they took care of the problem as quickly as possible. Overall, the do a fantastic job.
    I agree that airlines need to be held accountable for damages and incidents involving our devices. We are paying customers who need protection and respect.

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  6. […] You arrive at the airport, check your bags, get your boarding passes, and go to your gate. You have not had something to eat or drink for 12 hours, and you don’t have to use the lavatory on the plane so you’re pretty hungry. Source: […]

  7. […] travelers is having their mobility equipment damaged or lost by an airline. In fact, this fear is so great that many wheelchair users refuse to fly at all to ensure their equipment doesn’t get […]

  8. Sarah

    Thankyou for this Sylvia. Your comments can be extended internationally, not just to US airlines, however you have enough of a challenge with this first! As a fellow chair user who has travelled the world extensively – SCI for 26 years-, I commend you for your ability to articulate our frustrations in such an effective way. I look forward to reading about any feedback you receive. Sarah (UK)

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