Airlines Damaging Wheelchairs: Are We At Fault As Well? (part 1)

Posted by Michael Collins in Life After Paralysis on July 09, 2018 # Travel, Safety

I recently watched three videos posted on Facebook that showed airline personnel struggling to handle an expensive power wheelchair during the loading and unloading processes in three different airports. For me, it was like watching a movie of someone getting their teeth drilled or pulled without Novocain, which causes me to cringe just thinking about it.

The particular wheelchair which was the subject of two of the videos was similar to the one I use on a daily basis, which has a "list price" in excess of $30,000 and is capable of tilting and reclining; some similar models will even elevate and lower the seat and leg supports mechanically. Viewing the operation through the small airplane window made it impossible to tell if the chair also had additional connections to support more complex electronics like breathing apparatus or communications devices; I hope not, as they likely would have been damaged in the process I watched.

The (probably 300-pound) wheelchair arrived in the area where it was to be loaded onto the baggage belt to take into the hold of the plane lying flat on its side; it was in one of those baggage carts that have an upper and lower shelf. Four men in fluorescent vests struggled to pull the chair out of the baggage cart and set it upright on its wheels. When they completed that task it was still at least 50 feet away from the baggage belt and it quickly became obvious that no one knew how to release the brakes so it could be rolled.

After a few minutes during which the ramp personnel tried in vain to skid the wheelchair toward the plane, someone showed up with a smaller loader that could be used to carry the upright wheelchair to the base of the baggage belt so it could be put into the "belly" of the plane. The rest of the passenger luggage was already loaded; by this time all of the passengers were seated on the plane as well.

Alas, the ordeal with the chair was not over.

Once it was placed on the lower end of the baggage belt it became clear that it would not fit into the cargo hold if left upright. That was because the removable headrest and armrests, as well as leg supports, were still on the chair in their normal positions as if ready for the owner to use. That required the chair to be laid on its side again so it could finally be loaded into the plane for the trip to the final destination.

As it passed from view into the plane there were no visible labels or signage on the chair, and the removable seat cushion was still in place. Since the ramp personnel had not discovered how to release brakes, I doubt if anyone called ahead to warn employees at the destination airport of what awaited them when they opened the door of the cargo hold.

The next video, that covered the unloading process, showed more of the same type of frustrating actions on the part of ramp personnel at the departure airport. It was just one example of hundreds of potentially damage-causing incidents impacting travelers who use mobility devices each year as they fly the unfriendly skies of the world's airlines.

Which brings me to a tough question about the large number of wheelchairs that have been damaged during air travel. To be fair, we need to answer this individually: "Is this all the fault of the airline industry or are we, as travelers who own these mobility devices, at fault when some of these damages occur as well?"

My personal opinion is that the answer is "In some cases, yes."

The reason that I answer that way is because we often treat the precautions we take for air travel differently than other activities in our day-to-day lives. For instance, no one would consider taking the family car to a mechanic who has no knowledge about it, no parts to replace something that breaks, and few if any tools to work on it. Yet, that is what happens every time we transfer out of our mobility devices--that may cost more than a family car--in an airport and turn them over to a stranger while expecting the devices to arrive in operating condition at our destinations.

My next blog will outline some steps that we can take to minimize the chance of damage during air travel, especially that which occurs during the loading and unloading process. If we don't take those steps we really have no one to blame but ourselves when some unknowing individual causes damage that leaves us without critical personal mobility.

To be continued…

© 2018 Michael Collins