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Flight Disruptions’ Impact on Disabled Passengers [unreported stories]

Flight Disruptions’ Impact on Disabled Passengers [unreported stories]

Joanna Teljeur
Written By Joanna Teljeur
Last Updated: June 10, 2024

The airline industry was widely scrutinized in 2023 for the way in which it treated passengers with disabilities. According to the US Department of Transportation, more than 11,527 wheelchairs were lost or damaged, and 63% of passengers with disabilities encountered barriers while traveling by air. Because of this, you’d probably agree that the current airline systems and policies fail to meet the needs of this vulnerable population. 

To illustrate this, we’ve compiled firsthand accounts from passengers with disabilities who have had to endure indignity and stressful situations caused by flight delays and cancellations. These unpublished stores create a vivid image of their challenges. So, in this post, we hope to shine a light on these accounts to raise awareness and initiate industry-wide change to make safety and dignity of all passengers a higher priority. 

Canceled Flights

RwandAir

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My mother and I are wheelchair assisted. We paid £165 for wheelchair assistance but never received any. My mother is 85 years old and I have had a knee replacement. We stood for hours at the airport on both 4th and 5th December. We are exhausted. We have lost leave days just waiting at the airport. We incurred extra costs using uber services and PCR tests. What should have been a memorable flight was a nightmare. Both my mother and I are traumatized. We feel we were treated badly, there was no communication and no Rwandair representatives so we couldn’t even ask questions.

British Airways

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We booked special services for taking a disability scooter as my wife is disabled. We were en route to the airport when I received a text stating this flight had been canceled. It took 1 hour to get through to their Customer Service, and alternative flights offered that did not take in that my wife was disabled and the reason (that she wanted a short flight). Finally another flight was booked, for the same route, and this was also canceled. We lost the Car Hire Fee for a No Show and BA Customer Service coerced me into accepting a voucher for this. We did not get on this holiday, and because of the way that BA have treated us (they rejected my direct claim) and are no longer replying to my emails.

easyJet

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We had a notification saying our plane was canceled at the desk. I was treated poorly by the staff. She said that there are no flights left to put us on for 2 more days, maybe 3 and she can’t provide us with any food, drinks, or hotel travel, and I couldn’t claim anything back and that it was not her problem!!! I explained to her my disabilities and she told me to go and get a wheelchair then disregard everything I have said. I was crying alongside my friend as we are only 19 years old. All she kept repeating that this is not her problem and laughing. I asked if she could explain to my mum on the phone as she was panicking and she said no and walked off away from the desk window. We arrived at 9pm Tuesday at the airport then didn’t get on the next flight at 9am. We all just sat in the airport by ourselves - no help entire time, and I had to borrow money off a family member to even get us this second flight!

Air Canada

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I, a wheelchair passenger, had already checked with an upgrade and was arranging to leave for the airport. Then I got the email message of a delay of about two hours. Then again, I was informed of the delay. After sometime, I got the message of the flight being canceled and alternatively was rebooked. Again, after I left for the airport I was informed that this flight was being delayed by about two hours but finally boarded the flight. Thereafter there was a delay of more than an hour seated in the aircraft. Please note the times of all these flight schedules were not during the daytime but late night to the next day early morning, that caused me and my host family to also drop me at the airport, and they had to park their car until the flight actually left, in case if for any reason it was delayed or canceled.

Air India

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My mother-in-law's flight was booked for the 3rd of December at 8:30pm. We took her to the airport and she was all checked in and we left her with wheelchair assistance and drove back to where we lived. We then contacted her at 8:25pm and she informed us that the flight had been delayed. We then contacted her at 9:15pm, and she told us that the flight had been canceled and she had to come back tomorrow as the flight had been rescheduled for 2.30pm.

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My mother in law is partially blind and and suffers from anxiety, and she was left not understanding what her options were. I feel this is unacceptable due to her age. She is 77 and the flight being canceled at the last minute was a real issue.

RwandAir

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Apparently the flight was canceled due to technical issues.  We were checked in and kept [at the airport] until 2am and only then informed we would be taken to a hotel to spend the night. We are three passengers - my 86 year old mother, my brother and myself.  The whole experience was a nightmare.  Both my mother and I are wheelchair assisted passengers, but we had to stand for hours even after we had paid £165 for wheelchair assistance. We are both very traumatized by the experience as there was no Rwandair staff on the ground to let passengers know what was happening. After a terrible trip to the hotel in the freezing cold at  2am, we were told to return the next day as we would be put on the flight.

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Well to our shock, our names had been taken off the list the next night and the flight left without us. Another night spent in the hotel!  Eventually we had to be rerouted with another airline on 8th December, losing 4 days of what was supposed to be the start of our holiday. We spent money on Uber traveling between the terminals to collect our luggage as the flight we had been put on was at a different terminal with a different airline.  To say we are traumatized is an understatement. The airline treated us appallingly, and passengers were so stressed and irate. An altercation broke out and police had to be called to restore calm.  We arrived at our final destination four days later.

Discover

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We are a family of 3. They informed us of the cancellation the same day of departure and said it was not possible to arrange a new flight for the same day. When we received the communication we were already out of the hotel, already done with the check out! It was Saturday at the end of July and all the hotels were full. The hotel was so kind to give us the only room available that was an accessible room for disabled, far away from the fancy room we had before. We traveled the day after arriving at our destination with more than a 12 hour delay.

Wizz Air

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We arrived at the airport three hours before our flight. Check-in opened two hours before the scheduled flight. We received our boarding cards, and our luggage was tagged. My sister was given a wheelchair and pushed through security by assisted staff. After we all went through security, departure gate 22 was announced. We waited there for further advice, and my sister was taken to gate 15 which had a lift for assisted passengers. We sat in gate 22 and approximately 30 passengers went through boarding but then everything stopped. No more passengers were allowed through to boarding. I went to the desk to ask what was happening, but the airport staff said that they did not know. I then went back 10 minutes later as I was concerned about my sister waiting at gate 15. I asked the representative to check to see if she was alright and they told me that nobody had boarded the plane.

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Approximately 90 minutes later, we were informed that the flight was canceled at 23.30pm.There was no Wizz Air staff to talk to that could explain the situation. The stress and strain that this caused us with no food and no assistance was unacceptable. Finally when we got on the plane we were informed that food was extremely limited and all we could get to eat was a packet of Pringles that we had to pay for. We had 17 hours. Shattered, tired, weary and very hungry.

British Airways

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We landed 30 minutes late.  After we taxied to our gate and all fit passengers had disembarked, my wife and I were picked up by our Disability Assistance provided by the Airport Authority and he took us through immigration and to baggage reclaim.

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We asked why he had taken us to the baggage reclaim and not to our connecting gate for our flight. Our Assistant grumbled that he didn’t have these details on his system and took us through to Departures.  It was when we attempted to enter the security check area for Domestic Flights that we learned that British Airways had suffered a catastrophic System failure causing total disruption to all BA Domestic Flights.

Delta

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There is assistance requested on my ticket due to disabilities (spine, PTSD). On my departing flight I paid for a seat to accommodate my needs and a Priceline rep assured me that I will be able to do the same on my returning trip when check-in starts. On 09/09/23 I wasn’t able to choose a seat online as the system wasn’t working.  I called Air France, and I was told to call Priceline. When I called Priceline I was told to call Air France.

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The flight was canceled. At Delta airlines a rep told us that it was a technical issue with the plane and rebooked our trip for next day at 2:30 pm only after I insisted that I was not feeling well and I will report her if she is not helping me. She showed us on the diagram that I will have room to extend my legs to stand up and to switch positions. She took pictures of the luggage tags to make sure she said they would be in the same flight with us. We arrived at the hotel at 7:10 PM accompanied by the assistant attendant.

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The hotel didn’t have electricity since 1 PM. As per my medical disabilities I have restrictions, one of them being heat. The clerk refused to transfer us to a different hotel, making me wait in a room with no AC when outside the temperature was 35C- 95F saying that the electricity will be restored at 8:39 PM. Due to the long waiting time, standing around to deal with a lot of issues, I was in a lot of pain, anxiety.  I couldn’t sleep because I didn’t have the special pillow to help with pain. It was in my checked luggage.

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We left the hotel at 11:30 AM with the assistance attendant from the airport. The flight was delayed again. The wheelchair attendant brought me to the gate at boarding time and, after our tickets were scanned, we were told that we were missing the security check into the airport. I started to get a lot of anxiety, I felt very sick, panicked on top of unbearable pain. The supervisor lady from the gate security figured out that the tickets issued were canceled, and the supervisor from security reissued new tickets with seats which no longer accommodated my disabilities.

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The flight was delayed again. Arrival was also delayed. We waited for luggage, and we had to fill out a luggage claim, and we left the airport at 6:45PM. Our luggage was mishandled. Due to the cancellation, I missed medication I was taking for 3 days, I was in a lot of pain, numbness, excruciating headaches (I have  neck surgery), more anxiety and panic attacks. I needed to make  appointments with a pain doctor and have trigger points for treatment for pain, missed an appointment, delayed the injection for knee arthritis (I had it in the check in luggage), and had to postpone the appointment with the orthopedic dr., had more anxiety and panic attacks.

Woman-with-mother-in-wheelchair-waiting-for-boarding

Missed Connections

Air France

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As per my itinerary with a ticket as a person with disability and using wheelchair assistance, someone made  changes to my booking, and I have been told that I am to depart earlier. In the plane, two people quarrel about a window seat, when I heard that this plane is to depart for VIENNA. I immediately asked stewards if I was put on the wrong plane. They took my bag, slowly walked to the gate. They told me to take a seat and someone will help me to get to the right gate and everybody left.

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Ten minutes later, some staff came and asked to get my issued booking card and REQUESTED ME to WALK to the gate. I later found out that there is another airport, which you must use a shuttle to get there.

Helpless, disturbed, in pain, in stress that I am not getting on time to my destination to go to hospital to see my dying brother.

Denied Boarding

RyanAir

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Special assistance was arranged, parking booked and paid. Arrived at special assistance only to be told to hurry and get to the gate due to time. I had a very stressful arrival to the gate that was then further delayed. It may not be the 3 hours, despite this no consideration was given to me queuing for such a long time.

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On departure, due to my arrival experience. I had a terrible experience due to a medical emergency. We rushed to gate Y and missed the flight due to the gate being closed. The flight attendant stated that they contacted special assistance, but due to rushing nothing was done. No assistance to get back down or shown where to go. We spent 1 hour trying to find someone to help.

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I’m a disabled woman who was caught out with an unfortunate incident, and further penalized without a care for my situation. They could see I was sweating in pain and fatigued. Only to be told to go back downstairs and buy a ticket. Unfortunately my whole experience and real travel was ruined due to my unfortunate disability and Ryanair didn’t appear empathetic or bothered!!!

British Airways

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After checking in 24 hrs ahead of my flight and receiving confirmation, I arrived 4 hrs in advance at the airport. I had a carry on that needed to be weighed and I was directed to the BA counter. The agent took my itinerary, check-in confirmation & passport. She then announced that I had no reservation. I was told there was no supervisor on duty. There was no support manager to talk to. I was never given an explanation. I was just told that “you have no reservation.

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The flight I had been booked on left at 12:40p. I asked the BA agent what I should do. She was indifferent.  I asked what the price was for a ticket home and she directed me to the upstairs ticket counter. There, I bought the least expensive ticket I could afford.

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Not only did I not receive “care”, but I was not given the courtesy or respect that a disabled 70 year old (with a wheelchair) should have had. The agent gave me no reason for the deletion of my complete reservation. I was told to step aside. I was scared and alone. I was frustrated with no one to talk to and ask why I was being denied boarding. It was a cruel end to a 10 day visit. I was emotionally falling apart.

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My mother was scheduled to leave on Friday. We were referred to the Assistance Desk as she needed a wheelchair. We went up to the desk and said what time her flight was but were told to wait - after a few minutes I went up to the desk again and stressed that her flight was at 19.35 but again told to wait for a porter to come. Other passengers were being taken but for some reason they were not calling my mother. I continued to ask when a porter would be available to take my mother and was told I could push the wheelchair - which I did - and to look out for someone with a gray tie to see if they could get a porter- I noticed a gentleman and told him he told me to go the security and wait for someone - once i got to the security gate I was told to wait again someone would come - we waited but again no one come - eventually I called someone else he said that she had 10 minutes to get through security - but there were no porters - eventually we were told that she would not be able to board the flight and that we would have to come back the next day.

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Her suitcases had gone through and they said they would have to recall them. The Departures Information clearly states that gates close 20 minutes before your departure - so why could they not prioritize my mother and wheel her through - she even offered to try and walk in order to get on the plane as we had relatives coming to pick her up at the other end. I am so annoyed and she was very distressed about having to come home and go back again. We were told to arrive at 4.00 am - even though her flight was at 06.40. We got there at 3pm - staff did not start working until 5.15 - mum was not taken through security until after 5.45, so I don't understand why she could not be prioritized the day before and taken rather than delay us all and make us come back.

American Airlines

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My 15 year old daughter was en route to a ballet winter intensive. When we checked her in and checked  her luggage we were told clearly when we asked for her boarding pass. The attendant stated that they would issue the boarding pass AT THE GATE. While she has certain cognitive challenges, she really wanted to practice her independence and get to the gate herself. This involved changing terminals. She did beautifully and called us for help/directions and was on track to make her connecting flight. Then, she was suddenly stopped at security and DENIED going through because she has no boarding pass. She begged and pleaded and showed an email which had all of her flight information but they still denied her. She called me sobbing “ I’m going to miss my flight “ and she was told to “ shut up “ and that she would have to reschedule to a later flight.

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I have never in my 40 years of travel witnessed this kind of insanity and abuse for an airline mistake. My daughter was hysterical and hyperventilating and I told her to let me speak to an adult immediately. The first person at security hung the phone up on me while I tried to explain that this is a 15 year old with disabilities who simply needed to get to her gate and that stranding her in the airport made no sense at all.

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I called my daughter back and demanded to speak to a supervisor in security. I explained she had 5 min to get to her gate, and this was flat out ABUSIVE and I was going to get an attorney. The next thing I could see on the live 360 was my daughter literally RUNNING. She made her flight and literally threw up the entire way from severe trauma. I then called American Airlines over the course of 3 hours. I spoke to a “supervisor “ who allegedly documented my complaint but refused to give me a case number and basically told me although admitting the airline was at fault for not appropriately coordinating and issuing my daughter a boarding pass and traumatizing her that she couldn’t even help schedule an escort for her on the return even though I have ample documentation that she has disabilities ( IEP, psychiatric and medication proof ) she told us we couldn’t even do that. It will likely take years to rebuild my daughter's confidence and years if extended therapy is egregious and traumatic and must be called out.

Virgin Atlantic

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On the 3rd January we went to the airport and were told that our seats weren’t available as they canceled our flight without telling us, no email. Our 2nd flight from Seattle to Heathrow we were still booked on however we would not make the connection. Our daughter had already driven 2 hours from Pullman to get us there only to be told we had to catch the flight the day after. I’m disabled using a wheelchair, and my husband has Dementia. This news made him very ill.

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Getting to the gate after explaining our situation, she gave us our seats which were not upgraded, we were in row 50, not good enough for a wheelchair user but the young lady gave no help at all. She told us if we wanted to be moved up we would have to pay for it. I asked about my Gluten free meal. She replied that I had to book it 48 hours before then she went on to say "buy something from the shop nearby, by this time I was really upset.

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This was becoming a huge inconvenience. My husband was beginning to become ill again. Stress is a big factor with Dementia. On boarding the flight, the cabin crew noticed that we were unwell and continued to help us. In 18 years of traveling to America we’ve never had such an awful horrible experience. The airline has failed in every aspect. We were embarrassed when we finally got onto the flight getting looks from other passengers for making them delayed. The agent at the Seattle desk was very abrupt and rude about my Gluten free meal, after hearing what we were going through, plus our disabilities she really couldn’t care less!!

Air Maroc

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My disabled mother collapsed on our way to check in, and we got there a minute late due to her serious health conditions which makes it difficult to walk. We asked for help but nobody would help us. She collapsed on the way, and we had to wait a little while for her to breathe and come back to consciousness. We had a nurse tell us what we could do in the meantime.

I carried more than 5 pieces of luggage myself with trolly restrictions and my mother couldn’t stand the pressure. The airport attendants refused us. She told us we won’t get on the plane even though my mum was in a bad condition, plus we showed them her disability badge. I’m devastated now and so frustrated. My mother has been crying since, and it’s affecting her health more.
 

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The attendants were never helpful and my mum’s condition is getting worse because of this stress.

United

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My cousin and I missed our plane and the clerk wouldn’t get me wheelchair assistance. We were waiting for wheelchair assistance but they never came. I placed my hand luggage and my things in the wheelchair and we started walking a painful walk back to the United boarding desk. I was in so much pain. I couldn’t walk any further. We missed our plane again. My itinerary was a horrible experience and very stressful on me and my body.

British Airways

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There is no human touch in the service you offer. This is the first time we had requested for wheelchair assistance and to my utter dismay I’m shocked that mum was not allowed to board the flight just because no staff came to take her to the gate on time.

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The BA Customer Rep at the check-in counter advised us to go to the passenger assistance section. Staff at the passenger assistance desk further asked us to wait for 30 mins as there were few more passengers scheduled to board the same flight waiting for wheelchair assistance. We continued going back and forth to the desk to get an update on wheelchair assistance, and staff were busy chit chatting. We went back to the BA check- in counter.  I got nervous and my mum panicked when we saw that a senior citizen passenger flying BA first class missed his flight just because no one turned up to assist him.

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Eventually at 20:45 hrs a lady arrived to assist my mum and as soon as they went to the counter and showed the boarding card, they were asked to return and told boarding cannot take place. We were provided with a hotel room and yet again the supervisor at the wheelchair assistance counter took a screenshot of the boarding card for the following day and confirmed that passenger assistance had been arranged on priority.  We checked whether we could get the luggage back and we were told that we cannot as they had shortage of drivers to get the stuff back to the terminal.  Owing to this mum couldn’t take her routine medication. I’m so disappointed because of this mismanagement as it completely disturbed the onward journey plus it left us with a feeling of horror and humiliation.

A woman walking disabled person wheelchair airport

Delayed Flights

Jet2

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I have advanced Parkinson’s disease and was in a wheelchair. We passed through immigration at 1200 and were waiting to board when we were told the plane was delayed due to a technical problem. We returned to the departure lounge where we then received a text at 1226 stating that it was now a medical incident and the new departure had been put back to 1635. We asked a Jet2 official if we could transfer to the Jet2 plane leaving in an hour's time. We received a 10 euro voucher each which paid for a coffee and some water. The plane finally arrived at 1803, four and a half hours late. I am on heavy medication and the delay caused a lot of stress so that I became very agitated. Only now, nearly a week later, have I begun to return to my normal state which in any case is not good.

Air France

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The flight delays resulted in missing the connecting flight. Multiple employees advised we are entitled to refund and compensation. We were also advised that due to the delay we could get refreshments in the business lounge but were then denied access and no refreshments were offered. Both me and my wife required wheelchair assistance so we weren’t able to go around the airport to get food.

Delta

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My spouse is disabled (can walk with assistance and needs a wheelchair at airports). The extended delay was physically difficult for her, particularly in her back. We arrived and deplaned five hours after our scheduled 1300h arrival. The Delta representatives told us that the initial delay was for 1.5 hours, then that was extended. It was only after all passengers were on board, prior to taxiing, that everyone was informed that no luggage was loaded on the plane because there had been a cargo latch issue. We were informed, while on board, that the luggage would be sent to our final destinations either that evening or the following day.

RyanAir

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[The delay] particularly inconvenienced me as, due to a disability, I had actually been lifted to the aircraft (although denied entry due to the airline issues), and wheeled back to the terminal building, finding that my passport had been lost/stolen en route. I was denied entry through security (albeit I had gone through successfully at 9.00). I subsequently lost out on my granddaughter’s first family holiday, had to organize and pay for my journey home with no assistance, which I had had with my family on going to the airport. This meant that I lost out on the cost of the flight, accommodation and incurred costs to return home.

easyJet

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We sat in wheelchairs for over 4 hours, no food, no water, no information. We were at the wrong gate when I noticed, after 4 hours, that our plane was boarding at Gate A5. I grabbed one of the wheelchair staff and told him we were at the wrong gate and where was A5. “One mile down there” he said and ran off. I found another member of staff and shouted at her, telling her we are at the wrong gate. Next two disabled staff came running. They ran our wheelchairs through the airport like mad men, shouting at people to get out of the way. We got to the gate and the passengers were boarding. They got us near the front and we managed to get onto the plane. We had had no food, no drink, just dumped by the gate. No info, nothing.

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I needed to take meds but had no water. I was in terrible pain for hours. There was no food on the plane. They were short of food, but I managed to get water and take meds. We were so late and tired my husband was worried about driving home safely. He was so stressed at age 81. Both of us are disabled. I have Post Polio and he has had cancer and used a Colostomy bag. He needed to change it often, but there is no room in the plane toilets. He was in a mess and very distressed.

United

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We were told we would all have to disembark and catch the last DC to SFO domestic flight. But as we came into Dulles, we were told we would all have to disembark and catch the last DC to SFO domestic flight. However it was late by the time we arrived and most of us never made it, especially disabled users reliant on wheelchair assistance like me and just a little more than an hour to get to the right terminal. The result was chaos. United Airlines skeleton staffed windows at Dulles were swamped by hundreds of passengers. By the time my wheelchair assistance got me to a window to negotiate a connecting flight it was 1am and I was told nothing was available to SFO until the next day.

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No accommodation was offered nor food (and everything was shut at Dulles by this time). I ended up sleeping on the ground in the special services section as Dulles staff went home. However, after I got 3 hours of broken sleep. I missed the funeral and was exhausted for several days after.

Qatar

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I found out that the next flight was scheduled to take place two days later. I had no other choice but to reach my destination. So, I accepted it. I was instructed to get tickets from the special counter on the other side of Airport, which was difficult due to my lower back pain disc problem that was causing pain, which became an arduous task.

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The ticket issuance process was excruciatingly slow, enduring about a four-hour wait in a long queue with limited mobility due to my condition. Ultimately, a ticket with the wrong date was issued. Struggling with back pain, I asked for help with a wheelchair and was able to rest at the hotel until 12:00 noon. A driver came to take me back to the airport to catch the flight. These delays and disruptions have significantly intensified my back pain which led to the need for surgical intervention, as mentioned in my doctor's letter.

Conclusion

As you can see, these real-life stories show the reality of what air travel is like for passengers with disabilities. Their accounts bring to light the hardships caused by flight disruptions but, more importantly, the lasting emotional and physical impact of the delays and cancellations. Hopefully, these narratives will bring greater awareness to these issues and serve as a reminder that the airline industry must provide more protections and assistance to all passengers, but especially those who live with disabilities.

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