One of the biggest travel fears for wheelchair users is having their wheelchairs or other mobility aids damaged or lost while flying. We’ve all heard the horror stories and seen the terrifying photos of $30,000+ wheelchairs destroyed into bits and pieces during flights, but until a year ago, we had no solid data on how frequently this was happening.
In February 2019, the Department of Transportation began including legally mandated statistics about wheelchairs mishandled by US airlines in its monthly Air Travel Consumer Report. The statistics include the total number of wheelchairs and scooters handled monthly by each of ten major airlines, the number lost or damaged, and the percentage of all wheelchairs and scooters handled that were damaged. Airlines reporting these statistics include:
- Alaska Airlines
- Hawaiian Airlines
- American Airlines
Each month’s report contains statistics for the month 60 days prior, so the July 2019 report contains statistics for the month of May 2019, and so on. This is why this article contains averages and data for January through October 2019. Let’s see what that data can tell us about how US airlines are handling our wheelchairs.
1. American Airlines has the worst record for wheelchair damage. There are two ways one can look at wheelchair damage statistics: total wheelchairs lost or damaged, and the percentage of all wheelchairs handled that was lost or damaged. The first number isn’t as significant because larger airlines will naturally carry a larger volume of wheelchairs. By percentage, American Airlines has the highest monthly average of wheelchairs lost or damaged at 3.5 percent.
2. Southwest Airlines damaged the highest volume of wheelchairs. Again, take this number with a grain of salt. It’s likely that more wheelchair users overall fly with Southwest than American Airlines, perhaps because of lower airfares or better customer service ratings; it’s hard to say. Southwest damaged or lost a total of 1,987 wheelchairs and scooters during this period, compared to American’s 1,660. However, this represented 2 percent of all devices, compared to American’s 3.5 percent.
3. Allegiant Air had both the smallest volume and percentage of wheelchairs lost or damaged. Allegiant is a mid-size low-budget airline that typically flies to smaller markets just outside major US cities. It has nowhere near the passenger volume as airlines like Delta or United, but it’s big enough for its solid record on wheelchair handling to be noted. This being said, Allegiant tends to get lower marks for aircraft cabin comfort and customer service, so your in-flight experience may need to be balanced with the lower potential for wheelchair damage.
4. Of the largest US airlines, Delta has the best record. Not everyone can fly on Allegiant or Alaska Airlines (which also has a good record) because they don’t serve their cities. However, of the largest US airlines with the biggest markets, Delta has the best record, with only 0.9 percent of their wheelchairs and scooters being damaged. I understand that any number is still too high, but this is about comparing airlines. Delta is followed by United at 1.5 percent, and JetBlue with 1.9 percent.
5. Some airlines are improving, but most are not. One would think that by having your wheelchair damage statistics available for everyone to see, you’d be motivated as an airline to improve your wheelchair handling performance. For most airlines, this has not been the case.
The most notable change has been American Airlines, which started 2019 with a 5.7 percent damage rate, and steadily decreased to 1.8 percent by October. Allegiant’s numbers have been consistently low throughout the year. But then you have airlines like Hawaiian and Frontier, whose damage percentages are all over the map. This leads me to believe that they don’t have a comprehensive, or at least effective, plan to reduce their damage rates.
6. Wheelchair loss and damage ultimately rests on airport baggage handlers. Baggage handlers work either directly for an airline or an aviation services company that is contracted to the airline, not the airport. This is often a source of much confusion, especially for wheelchair users who have experienced damage to their chairs and are looking for whom to properly assign blame.
Bags (and ostensibly wheelchairs) get thrown and mishandled primarily to avoid delays. Getting an aircraft turned around in a minimal amount of time is the number one priority for everyone on the ramp. In November 2011, a baggage handler told the media that “due to the nature of some aircraft, it would be impossible to turn around a 737 or 757 in an hour or less without throwing bags because it’s just faster.” You can read all about the world of airport baggage handlers HERE.
7. Airlines report only what is legally required. It is virtually impossible for the general public to determine what airlines are doing to improve their handling of wheelchairs and scooters. It is also difficult to determine how much training baggage handlers receive on how to deal with mobility equipment. All that travelers with wheelchair users can do is learn how to prevent wheelchair damage, report damage when it happens to both the airline and the Department of Transportation, and choose your preferred airlines based on past performance.