The worst nightmare for any wheelchair user who wants to travel is having to fly on a plane. From booking the flights to selecting a seat to requesting wheelchair assistance, the whole process is stressful. But the worst part is wondering if your wheelchair is going to make it to your destination in one piece, or even make it there at all.
A few years ago, and after considerable effort, the US Department of Transportation was finally forced to start tracking how many passenger wheelchairs are lost, damaged, or otherwise mishandled by US airlines. There has been a considerable amount of data collected over the last few years to notice trends, both overall and within each individual airline. Based on the statistics reported by the US DOT in 2022, here are the trends and how the airlines rank as best and worst for handling wheelchairs during air travel.
The Best and Worst
In 2022, the US airline with the best record of handling wheelchairs was Allegiant, with an average rate of wheelchair loss, damage, or mishandling of 0.4%. Allegiant was followed by Delta with an average rate of 0.8%, and then United with 1.1%. Allegiant did have a small spike in mishandling reports during the summer months, which may be attributed to corresponding spikes in air travel. Delta’s rate held steady, and actually started to decline/improve in the fall. United also held steady throughout the year.
As anyone can see in the graph above, two airlines were clearly the worst for wheelchair handling – JetBlue and Spirit. JetBlue had an average mishandling rate of 5.25% and spirit had a rate of 5.8%. These rates are at least three times worse than the other eight airlines the US DOT tracks. Both JetBlue and Spirit also saw a spike in mishandling during the summer travel months.
A few years ago I wrote a blog post about why so many wheelchairs get lost or damaged or mishandled — an average of 26 per day in the United States. There are a lot of factors that come into play, including the pressure to turn an aircraft around for departure within a limited amount of time, lack of training on handling wheelchairs properly, and sometimes personal apathy by baggage handlers.
A lot of factors also come into play when we are selecting an airline for accessible travel. Depending on where you live and what your budget is, you may not have too many choices. Also, because baggage handlers are contracted out locally by airlines, you may have different results from airport to airport. There are plenty of wheelchair users who have had awful experiences with extensive damage on Delta and United, and other wheelchair users who have had fabulous experiences with JetBlue. Frankly, I don’t know anybody who has had a great experience on Spirit Airlines with anything, but your mileage may vary.U
Ultimately, it’s important to remember what to do if you do experience the loss or damage of your wheelchair during a trip. Make sure that you report the damage to both the airline and the US Department ofTransportation. Know what your rights are under the Air Carrier Access Act, and keep following up to make sure any damage gets repaired as quickly as possible.