by Jenny Addis
In the beginning of the year, I had the opportunity to fly out to Faulkton, South Dakota for
business. Along the way, I ran into a major obstacle: the airline damaged my
power wheelchair. Due to this unfortunate event, I discovered some disturbing
information that I’m sharing with our mobileWOMEN readers in my "Don't Break
my Legs...Handle with Care!" campaign.
I travel frequently and yet, each time I take to the skies, I realize there is
a possibility that something may happen to my wheelchair. Nonetheless, I cannot
allow that fear to prevent me from flying. In 1997, at the age of 24, a tragic
drunk driving accident left me paralyzed from the chest down, stripping away my
independence, livelihood, and career. It took time, but eventually I became
focused on taking my unfortunate experience and turning it into something
positive by beginning a new career. At this point, traveling became a necessity
in my life, career and overall independence. Now when I get on an airplane, I
only hope that my wheelchair arrives back on the jetway in one piece, wherever
my destination is that day.
On this occasion, we landed back in Minneapolis and, as I was waiting on the
airplane for the personnel to bring my wheelchair up from stowage, I realized
that it was taking quite a long time. Long waits in the past were never a good
My instinct was correct; my wheelchair was damaged. The mishap occurred some
time during the loading and unloading process into the aircraft from Milwaukee,
Wisconsin or in-flight to Minneapolis, Minnesota, or all of the above. When I
was finally escorted off the aircraft in Minneapolis, there were numerous
employees standing around my broken wheelchair doing literally nothing. They
were lost, which wasn't shocking, because throughout every one of my encounters
of wheelchair damage by an airline, one common denominator was a lack of
knowledge regarding how to handle this type of situation and empathizing,
genuinely, with me, as a consumer.
To make matters worse, Minneapolis was just one leg in my four-flight trip. In
those four flights, there were only two employees empathetic towards my
situation: the manager who handled my claim in Aberdeen and a loading
department employee who brought my damaged wheelchair up from stowage in
Minneapolis. Interesting point to make is that I learned both employees have a
loved one who is a wheelchair user.
I can't help, but wonder...Is it possible to have empathetic, sincere and
genuine employees and management? If so, does that mean they have to be faced
with adversity on some level, in order for those qualities to shine through?
My wheelchair was found with luggage on top of it and was lying on its side in
the aircraft at least twice, which I found out later from my mobility company
is a big “No-No!” To me, whoever put luggage on top of my wheelchair has
absolutely no respect for the value of this piece of equipment, not only on a
monetary level, but most of all, the physical and emotional connection it
serves in its owner's life. In my opinion, the majority of airline personnel
and management observe a damaged wheelchair as an inconvenience to the
consumer, but something that can be fixed...replaced. The damage is taken very
lightly, which is completely inappropriate. Our wheelchairs are made
specifically for our bodies, function and physical limitations. The bottom line
is that a wheelchair cannot always be fixed on the spot, can include months of
waiting and may cause secondary repercussions.
When we landed in Minnesota, the manager didn't show empathy, but rather wanted
to move us along as quickly as possible. He gave us a food voucher, which I
felt was an insult, because when a consumer is looking at her broken
wheelchair...her broken legs....her now stolen independence….a food voucher
isn't going to make it better, especially since my wheelchair represented a monetary
value of over $30,000.
On my way back to Milwaukee, my wheelchair couldn't be pushed manually, so the
loading manager became involved to help figure out a solution on how to
transport it down to stowage and safely onto the aircraft. I explained what was
broken, visually, on my wheelchair, but without having it assessed, it was
unclear to total damages. My main concern was insuring that when I landed in
Milwaukee, late that night, I wouldn't have more damages to deal with. Sadly
again, I encountered a manager with a bad attitude. He made a verbal scene in
front of the other passengers pointing fingers as to why we were running late.
Carrying the wheelchair wasn't convenient, but at that point, was the only
option. It certainly didn't deserve a negative attitude and remarks on
management's part. We needed a resolution. As a consumer, with clearly a
position to be upset about, I was able to keep my composure and avoid making a
scene in front of the other passengers. What this manager forgot was that I was
a paying customer, disabled or not. They broke my wheelchair and as an airline
were responsible for those damages.
At this point, I made an executive decision. I offered my caregiver's
assistance. Shaina drove my wheelchair down to stowage. What was about to
happen next was shocking and disturbing to us both.
I was now sitting on the jam-packed aircraft with an airline employee awkwardly
holding me up in my seat. As a C5-C6 quad, I can't hold my torso up,
independently, without flopping over like a wet noodle. I needed complete
assistance to just sit. The employee was doing his best, but his lack of
knowledge to my needs was difficult on me. I felt demeaned in front of the
other passengers. I was falling into other's seats and laps. The frustrating
point here is that I should've had my caregiver by my side, as she understood
my needs; not to mention, I was paying her to assist me. Instead, she was in
the stowage area doing the airline personnel's job.
While Shaina was in the loading area, she observed with confusion as four men
struggled to lift my 350-pound plus wheelchair into the aircraft, as carefully
as possible. The space designated to stow my wheelchair wasn't large enough. My
wheelchair sustained scrapes and damages immediately before the aircraft was
even off the ground. My best analogy is that these employees are being asked to
take a square and fit it into a circle. It can't be done, not safely…not without
a distorted square in the end...in my case, a damaged wheelchair. No wonder why
the employees are frustrated, acquire bad attitudes and it gets taken out on
Usually, I'd take a straight flight to my final destination, because there are only
two opportunities to break my wheelchair versus four. In this case, Wisconsin
didn't offer a straight flight, so I had no options. I can't help but
wonder...Why? Why should a disabled consumer have to worry about possible
damage to their wheelchair and direct flights to begin with?
As a consumer, disabled or able-bodied, when I purchased my airline tickets, I
assumed that all airlines take every possible measure to be certain my
wheelchair and equipment are being protected while in their possession...prior
to take off, loading and unloading, take off, in-flight, landing and at my
final destination. I assumed the aircraft is equipped to properly transport an
electric wheelchair and that it's strapped down in the stowage area. I also
assumed that every airline has intentions to give the best customer experience
to all its passengers, disabled and able-bodied, throughout the entire flight.
Due to experience...I know for a fact that these areas are lacking and
inadequate; my experience is not isolated.
As soon as I arrived home, I met with my mobility company to have my wheelchair
assessed. We then found the major damage: this type of wheelchair cannot be on
its side...ever! The manufacturer will not cover any repairs on a wheelchair
that has gone through that kind of trauma. Due to the "mechanical"
damages that may occur…if not now, then later.
Ultimately, my wheelchair was deemed unsafe and irreplaceable by my mobility
company and the manufacturer. I was fitted for a new wheelchair immediately. It
took two months to finally receive my new wheelchair. Apparently, my claim
slipped through the cracks, so it took longer than usual to process my claim.
Due to the frame damage and seating system being compromised, I was fighting
posture and pressure issues, which I'm still fighting today.
Why are these airlines accepting our money and making us believe they can
transport our bodies and equipment safely? I wonder how many people don't
make claims, because the damage to their wheelchair wasn't visible. They then
go home and the damages arise a week or month later. Are they making so much
money cramming us into the aircraft that it doesn't matter if they damage a
How are these airlines getting away with not accommodating wheelchair user's
equipment? It should be disclosed and brought to our attention that their
stowage area is not large enough to transport the equipment during the ticket
purchasing process. I'd have more respect for an airline saying, "I'm
sorry, but this particular aircraft CANNOT accommodate your size wheelchair,
but this particular flight and aircraft CAN accommodate you and your wheelchair
safely." Would it inconvenience me? Of course, but it inconvenienced me
more having a damaged wheelchair during my layover, connecting flight, final
destination and trip as a whole.
I've thought long and hard about solutions and how airlines could avoid wheelchair damage and these unwelcome experiences from happening to their disabled consumers.
Here are a few of my thoughts...
* Eliminate the first row or bulkhead seating altogether. Use a portable ramp that'll allow us to drive our wheelchairs onto the aircraft and store it at each airport or right on the aircraft.
* For every wheelchair space are four designated tie- downs, latches and
straps built right into the aircraft floor. They are reused for each and every
flight that a wheelchair is on board and can easily be removed if needed.
* For example: In my accessible van, the ramp allows me to roll right in and
the passenger seat is removed, which allows me to sit up in front when
traveling. There are four tie-downs that are built directly into the passenger
side floor. My wheelchair is strapped down in case of an accident or something
as simple as slamming on the brakes occurs. My wheelchair and I are protected
during transport. These four tie-downs are minimally priced in comparison to
the cost of repairs or a brand new wheelchair.
* Those uncomfortable aisle chairs that a quadriplegic has an incredibly difficult time stabilizing themselves in could be eliminated altogether. The need for extra personnel to assist with transferring passengers into their seats is eliminated. Boarding time would be minimized. Most importantly, the consumer's wheelchair stays in their possession.
Jenny's damaged wheelchair addressing
the "Don't Break My Legs...Handle with Care!" campaign