US Airlines Are Damaging or Breaking 25 Wheelchairs Every Day

In February 2019, the Department of Transportation issued its monthly Air Travel Consumer Report as usual. What made this report different is that, for the first time, it included legally mandated statistics on the mishandling of wheelchairs and scooters by US airlines. The first report included data from multiple US airlines between the dates of December 4 and December 31, 2018. Despite having a year to prepare, both American Airlines and Southwest Airlines were unable to provide the actual number of wheelchairs and scooters loaded onto their airplanes, which has skewed the statistics at least slightly. But here is the initial raw data:

Keep in mind that statistics are meaningless without some context, and as you can see above the image, there is an asterisk at the end of the title. Here are some things you need to know before I go into my interpretation of the data.

The Department of Transportation revised 14 CFR 234 to require airlines classified as “reporting carriers” to report mishandled wheelchair and scooter data in aircraft cargo compartments. Pursuant to the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018, this requirement applies to operations on and after December 4, 2018. This is only the first month of reporting, so keep in mind that overall percentages will become more accurate as time passes.

Southwest Airlines informed the DOT that for December 2018, it reported mishandlings of all power-assisted and manual wheelchairs and scooters; however, Southwest stated that its enplaned wheelchairs and scooters number did not include any manual wheelchairs enplaned by the carrier. Southwest has disclosed to the DOT that it will have the ability to reliably capture manual wheelchairs enplaned on or after January 15, 2019, in its enplaned wheelchairs and scooters number submitted to the DOT.

American Airlines informed the DOT that for December 2018, it reported mishandlings of all power-assisted and manual wheelchairs and scooters; however, American stated that its process for determining the enplanement number of wheelchairs and scooters may not have consistently accounted for all wheelchairs and scooters enplaned. American has also stated that this process may have impacted American’s wholly- owned subsidiary Envoy and American’s other branded code share carriers ExpressJet and SkyWest. American has indicated to the Department that it is enhancing its process to reliably capture all reportable enplaned wheelchairs and scooters, which may take a few months.

Now, all of this being said and without taking Southwest Airlines or American Airlines into complete consideration, you can see the rankings for yourself. To some people, the percentages may seem much lower than the perception we have about the number of our mobility devices that are being damaged, which in all fairness comes from anecdotal evidence. However, it is also fair to say that the numbers could, in reality, be much higher, since these statistics are derived solely from customer complaints. If an airline damages a wheelchair and the customer does not file a complaint, that incident will not be counted in the DOT statistics. So the lesson here is, file a report!

Here is the statistical comparison that I find really disturbing. Many of us complain that our wheelchairs are treated as just another piece of luggage. Unfortunately, our mobility devices are treated in some cases 10 times worse than luggage. Here are the statistics for mishandled baggage between January and November 2018:

Please note that the reports are PER 1000 PASSENGERS. That means if you want to compare apples to apples with mishandled wheelchairs, you have to move that decimal point one space to the left. The worst offender with baggage, Envoy Air, has mishandled only half a percent of passenger baggage, but ALMOST 15 PERCENT of wheelchairs and scooters. Taking a look at a larger carrier, JetBlue only mishandled 0.2 percent of passenger baggage, but mishandled 4 percent of passenger wheelchairs or scooters. Doing the math, this means that JetBlue was 20 TIMES MORE LIKELY to damage a wheelchair than a suitcase.

Once again, to be fair, most wheelchairs and scooters are heavier and/or more delicate then suitcases. However, US airlines are extremely opaque when it comes to providing details of how their baggage handlers at US airports are trained to handle wheelchairs and scooters. Numerous wheelchair travelers, myself included, have volunteered our time to work with airlines and baggage handlers to help them understand why extra care is needed with our wheelchairs, but there have been extremely few takers.

Keep in mind that this is the first month that statistics are being reported. I will be very curious to see what subsequent reports reveal. In the meantime, I will leave you with this thought. Imagine if the headline in tomorrow’s paper read, “US airlines breaking 25 pairs of legs every day.” I wonder how the traveling public would feel if they knew that they could be one of the 25 people randomly having their legs broken on their flight that day, and how that might change their feelings about future air travel.

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  1. Gunnar

    Dear Sylvia, thanks for pointing this statistics out.
    What I find missing in both the statstics and consequently in your report:
    What means DAMAGE ? How is DAMAGE defined ?
    This can mean a simple scratch but can also mean „a missing wheel“ of even a total crash after a petrol-truck running over the device.
    This said I would think that there must be made a simple distinction in the grade of damage :
    Device damaged but still usable
    Device damaged and not usable before third-party maintainance / repair
    Kind regards

    1. Unfortunately, there is no legal requirement for the airlines to go into such detail. Unless it’s mandated, they’re not going to volunteer that information.

    2. Laurel

      I’m actually okay with them NOT separating these categories out. Damage is damage, whether it has immediate impact or long-term impact. If my daughter’s mobility equipment is damaged enough that I’m filing a report, it’s damaged enough that it’s impacted it long-term usability (at minimum) due to increased likelihood of future rusting/damage, or nuisance from the issue (like when her anti-tip caster no longer would stay on because the pin holding it in place snapped. It was still “usable,” but every time she went over a dip in the pavement, the darn thing fell off! Really made us reconsider several outings before it finally got fixed…)

      Airlines can be held accountable – and SHOULD be held accountable. This is a good first step, at least. I, too, will be interested to see what the next round of data shows…

  2. […] to fly at all to ensure their equipment doesn’t get damaged. Not helping matters any is the new requirement for US airlines to report the number of wheelchairs they lose or damage or mishandle. On average, US airlines are doing one of those things to 25 wheelchairs every day. So who is to […]

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