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Spinal Cord Injury Community

Navigating Airline Wheelchair Damage

Aaron Baker
Spinal Cord Injury Lifestyle Specialist | Shield HealthCare
06/24/19  12:20 PM PST
Airline Wheelchair Damage

Flying The … Sometimes … Friendly Skies!

Living with a spinal cord injury can be hard to manage, but traveling can be an escape from the monotonous routine of recovery. I’m extremely fortunate (and grateful) to be able to travel on a monthly basis. For the most part, careful preparation helps me to be successful in my ventures, however there are still some pitfalls to the process. It is important for us to explore both the good and the bad aspects of air travel.

Last month I was traveling back to Los Angeles from a work trip to Miami. I have a beautiful, new titanium wheelchair by TiLite and this was its maiden voyage. Getting to Miami went smoothly. However, when I landed back home in Los Angeles, I discovered damage to my wheelchair. I am usually one of the last to leave the plane, and as I was waiting for my wheelchair to come up, I saw that my cushion had gone missing. I explained to the airport team that it was somewhere underneath the plane, and I would not be going anywhere without it. Standing firm about your needs is important when traveling!

After twenty minutes or so, they returned with the found cushion. But, while waiting for the cushion, I noticed damage to my wheelchair frame and push rims. My new chair had big gashes in the front from being roughly handled and possibly damaged during turbulence, and the sticky rims that help my grip while pushing had a huge tear in it. I was so preoccupied with getting my cushion and meeting my wife down at baggage claim that I didn’t think about filing a complaint in that busy moment. We left the airport and I didn’t give it another thought.

The next morning, I mentioned both the damage and the momentarily-misplaced wheelchair cushion to my wife, and she asked, “Did you file a complaint?” Since I hadn’t, we contacted the airlines and they instructed us that we had to file a complaint in person, at the airport, for it to be recognized. They would not accept photos, and it had to be accomplished within 24 hours of landing. The airline explained that after we filed the complaint at the airport, they would need to take my chair for about two weeks to assess and repair the damages. They would give me a loaner chair, but who knows how well that would work for my daily activity and work life? We got off the phone and weighed the pros vs. cons:  sit in traffic to get to the LAX airport, pay for parking, wait in line to file a complaint, give up my custom chair for two (or more) weeks, and be stuck with a chair that probably wasn’t all that great… It sounded like all cons! I figured with a black Sharpie and some Crazy Glue, I could do the repairs myself and not have to go through all of that with the airlines.

Moral of the story:  If you have significant damage to your wheelchair, make sure to file a complaint while you are at the airport, and be prepared to give up your chair for a couple of weeks. Thanks to the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), if an airline damages your wheelchair, the airline carrier bears 100% liability – regardless of cost. You can learn more about your rights under the Air Carrier Access Act in this summary.

All things get damaged during transportation – just look at your luggage! So, for those of us who travel with chairs and other devices, be mindful of that while traveling. And if you are alright with your chair having a few scratches in exchange for the adventure, then you’ll never be disappointed by the unexpected.

Happy travels!

~Aaron

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