At half past midnight on July 30, 2018, after flying across Florida and above Colombia, our Delta airliner landed at the main airport of Ecuador’s capital city of Quito. Weary-eyed, my family just wanted to get to the hotel right next to the Mariscal Sucre International Airport. Unfortunately, and nervously, we noticed that the lap tray to my manual wheelchair was missing. Did the airline forget it all the way back in Atlanta?
With the little Spanish that we knew, we communicated what the issue was. As the hunt was going on, we found our luggage at the carousel. After a few long minutes, an employee emerged with the clear tray. My family and I went on our way to get rest before our hourlong flight to Cuenca later that morning.
Thankfully, our situation was resolved quickly. However, there have been numerous reports of airlines mishandling wheelchairs and assistive devices with no accountability. That changed on Dec. 4, 2018, when the Department of Transportation (DOT) implemented the “Wheelchair Rule” that requires the 12 biggest airlines — including Delta, Southwest and United — to track broken adaptive equipment.
The new requirement, which was drafted by the Obama administration, was supposed to take effect the first day of 2016. However, as Donald Trump became president, the DOT abruptly changed course due to ongoing pressure from the airline industry. After multiple delays and nonsatisfactory excuses, lawsuits were filed. With airlines seemingly ready for the changes, the FAA Reauthorization Act was finally kick-started in December.
According to a Washington Post article, there were “32,445 disability-related complaints to the Transportation Department” about domestic and foreign airlines in 2016 alone, with those numbers increasing in 2017 and 2018.
In February, the first set of stats was released in the Air Travel Consumer Report. It states that from Dec. 4- 31, out of 32,229 wheelchairs and scooters handled by the 12 airlines, 701 were damaged or broken. Above, I mentioned three airlines; here are how those numbers break down. Delta had damaged 105; Southwest wrecked 186; and United damaged 80.
Of course, not every airline is going to carry the same amount of wheelchairs and scooters. Therefore, the lesser-known airlines are going to damage fewer since they carry fewer passengers. For instance, the same report concluded that ExpressJet caused havoc on four mobility aids. However, they only had 75 wheelchairs and mobility devices that needed to go under the plane.
To reduce the likelihood of damage to wheelchairs and scooters, airlines recommend that air travelers notify them before their flights and explain that they have special-needs devices. Another thing one can do is to attach a card to the equipment, telling workers how to handle it with care. If your wheelchair or scooter is in disrepair, you should contact the staff right away and file a complaint with the airline and the DOT.
For air travelers with disabilities, disfigurement of their mode of getting around can cause unnecessary havoc. In the event of severe deficiencies, the person — with help of attendants — would need to scour the area for a replacement chair or equipment. Moreover, being that wheelchairs are designed specifically for an individual, loaner chairs could cause them to be uncomfortable and have pains that they would not otherwise have. If they are about to be on vacation or attend an adaptive sporting event, that would be difficult to enjoy if they are worried about their mobility or comfort.
Luckily, for me, my tray (I’m uncertain if a tray counts as part of the law) was found just before our 10-day journey of a lifetime in a foreign land. But, to thousands of those less fortunate, this new law will provide them relief in knowing that airlines will now be held accountable.
Michael Sack lives in Minneapolis.