Airlines Damaging Wheelchairs: How To Avoid Being Part of the Problem (part 2)

Posted by Michael Collins in Life After Paralysis on August 01, 2018 # Travel

When I reflect back on incidents during the last 30 years when my wheelchairs have been damaged to the degree where they needed a visit with a repairman, the most common causes have been as a result of travel on airlines. After well over 100 flights I have gradually stepped up the preventive measures I take prior to and during trips, so far less damage has occurred recently. Even so, it seems that there is always someone coming up with a new method of causing damage.

When it comes to preventing damage, the following steps are working well for me. While these are specifically for power wheelchairs, several steps apply to manual equipment as well.

Because I travel with a powered mobility device, I bring along a letter from my wheelchair vendor, on their letterhead, stating that the chair is equipped with gel cell batteries so they do not have to be removed during travel. If anyone is not using those types of batteries yet, I would highly recommend switching to them. I have also labeled every removable part on the chair in case someone decides to remove or lose it during transit; that includes leg supports, armrests, and the removable headrest; the return address labels I receive from charitable organizations work fine for that. A card taped on the back of the chair contains my name, address and a daytime phone number in case I need to be contacted should somebody "borrow" it by mistake.

I use brightly colored labels to identify the brake release levers so that the device can be rolled freely with the power off; power wheelchairs are heavy and may be difficult to roll even with the brakes disengaged. It is easy to sustain damage if untrained personnel decide to turn on power and operate the empty wheelchair with the device's controller instead of pushing it--I prefer to remove that temptation.

Using brightly colored paper, I print multiple copies of instructions for all airline personnel and contractors who will be handling my wheelchair so that they know how to move and load it into the cargo hold without damage. As soon as we transfer out of our chairs to load into the plane, the people who will be handling them from that point on are likely to be contractors, and not actual airline employees. While the air carrier will still have overall responsibility for any damage that occurs, their contractors may not receive the same training provided to airline employees.

Upon arrival at the airport to check in, I always request a gate check tag for my wheelchair. That allows me to remain in my chair before transferring, bringing it as close to the door of the plane as possible. That is also an indication that the chair needs to be delivered back to me at the door of the plane when we arrive at the destination, rather than taking it to the baggage claim section. Since the flight crew has to wait until all passengers are safely off the plane before leaving--it also puts pressure on the airline to deliver my wheelchair to me quickly.

Transferring into an aisle chair, I use my traveling companion and perhaps an airline employee or contractor to ready the chair to be taken below to the cargo hold. The following items are removed in preparation for the trip:

  • The seat cushion, which will travel in the overhead compartment,
  • Headrest,
  • Leg supports and
  • Armrests, including the joystick or controller.

The wheelchair is tilted back to about a 45° angle so that there is no flat surface available for stacking luggage on top of it. That also lowers the height of the chair so it is more likely to fit into the cargo hold even in its upright position. At that point the items in the list above that had been removed are stacked on the seat base; the armrest which includes the controller is placed on the bottom of the pile, to protect it.

Using straps and duct tape, which I bring with me, the items are securely fastened on the seat base so that nothing will be lost during transit. We then unplug the main power cable, make sure instructions are showing and disengage the brakes so that it can be rolled. With practice, the whole process takes about five minutes.

Strapped firmly into an aisle chair I am then rolled to my seat in the jetliner, feeling a bit more hopeful that my wheelchair will be in working condition at my destination. While I know that there will be a required Complaint Resolution Official( available at that point if something does get damaged, I prefer not to meet them.

© 2018 Michael Collins

The National Paralysis Resource Center website is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $8,700,000 with 100 percent funding by ACL/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by ACL/HHS, or the U.S. Government.