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Mishandled Wheelchairs and Mobility Aids: Understanding the Regulations Across Regions

Mishandled Wheelchairs and Mobility Aids: Understanding the Regulations Across Regions

Joanna Teljeur
Written By Joanna Teljeur
Last Updated: June 07, 2024

Being an air passenger is stressful enough at the best of times, but when your checked baggage is lost or damaged, it can feel like your entire trip will be ruined. So, imagine what it would feel like if your wheelchair was lost or damaged.

In a story by NPR, Senator Tammy Duckworth, an Iraq veteran who lost both of her legs said,

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People don’t realise that this is a part of my body. If this is broken, you’ve broken my legs.

In the same story, disability rights activist Emily Ladau said,

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I can’t tell you how many times I have sat on the plane waiting for sometimes close to an hour, if not more, just to have my wheelchair returned to me, and occasionally have found that my wheelchair was not returned to me promptly because it was damaged.

Meanwhile in Canada, the CBC reported on a story about a man with cerebral palsy being “forced to drag himself on an Air Canada flight” when he was informed that wheelchair assistance was not available to him1.

In this guide, we explore the regulations designed to protect passengers with reduced mobility in the EU, UK, US, and Canada, look at some of the factors leading to loss and damage, and explain what you can do as a passenger if it ever happens to you. 

Travelling with a Mobility Aid

In 2023, it was estimated that roughly 2,000 passengers, who rely on mobility equipment, fly each day in the United States. USA Facts found that 1 in 65 wheelchairs and other mobility equipment was mishandled in March 2023 alone. This means that almost 900 travellers were affected in just one month. By comparison, they found that checked baggage was lost, damaged, or delayed far less frequently at around 1 in 1752

Interestingly, the number of incidents varied quite a bit among airlines.

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Spirit Airlines mishandled approximately 1 out of 16 mobility aids, and JetBlue mishandled around 1 in 22. This is 12 and 7 times more frequent than the rates at which these airlines mishandled bags, respectively.

Why Is There So Much Damage

As with most issues, it’s difficult to pinpoint just one cause even though, in this case, the lack of training for airline and airport staff seems to be pervasive.

Improper lifting: Airline and airport staff lift wheelchairs and scooters that can weigh 400 pounds in some cases. Lifts and other technology is available, but not all airports have this equipment. Even when they do, mobility aids may still be lifted physically just to save time, which can lead to the items being dropped or damaged from improper lifting techniques.

Limited size of cargo hold doors: Some power wheelchairs won’t fit through the opening of the cargo hold door when they’re upright, so to make them fit, they are turned onto the side which can lead to damage.

Damage from the elements: In the course of loading them, wheelchairs can be exposed to rain or snow if not covered or otherwise protected, which can lead to damage, especially to electrical components.

Not being adequately secured in the cargo hold: Straps and hooks used to secure mobility aids are not always utilised, which can lead to significant damage during take off, turbulence, or as a result of other sudden movements that can happen during a flight. When mobility equipment shifts or slams into the walls or other cargo, it can be damaged or totally destroyed3.

Several wheelchairs

What Happens When Airlines Damage Wheelchairs

Wheelchairs and scooters are usually counted as baggage when it comes to regulations and compensation, but a lost suitcase and a lost wheelchair have very different results for passengers. 

While it’s still a huge inconvenience, if your baggage is lost or damaged you can generally find temporary or replacement items within a day or two. A damaged or lost wheelchair, on the other hand, can create a nightmare that can last for months. Many passengers, whose scooters or wheelchairs have been damaged, have to wait for hours to get loaner. When they finally do get a loaner, it usually doesn’t meet their specific needs as mobility equipment can be highly customised.

Sometimes, when passengers are left waiting, they face hours of not being able to use the washroom or move about as freely as they’re accustomed to, and when it comes to having their equipment repaired or replaced, it can take between 9-15 months4. While they wait for their wheelchair or scooter to be replaced, they can incur many additional expenses like having to take taxis rather than public transportation, or they may be unable to function the way they want and need to on a daily basis.

Best and Worst Airlines for Wheelchair Handling

So, which US airlines have a bad reputation for wheelchair handling? According to data from Wheelchair Travel, Spirit Airlines ranks high in this regard with a mishandling rate of 5.88% in 2023. This is an increase of 5.60% from 2022.American Airlines has also developed a bad rap because in August 2023, they mishandled 226 scooters and wheelchairs in that month alone according to Airliner Watch. 

As for the airlines with the best reputation, Allegiant has had a 0.06% rate of mishandling wheelchairs during the first 8 months of 2023 and, during the same period, Delta’s mishandling rate was a mere 0.68%3.

Global Regulations for Wheelchair Mishandling

Unfortunately, there are no widespread regulations or conventions for how airlines treat persons with disabilities, and as such, there are no laws pertaining to how mobility equipment is transported or how much airlines are liable for compensating disabled passengers. 

The only treaty that comes close to addressing the needs of passengers with limited mobility and mishandling of their mobility equipment is the Montreal Convention that establishes airline liability for baggage and cargo. To date, it has been ratified by 133 countries, but it limits compensation for both stowed luggage and mobility equipment at 1,288 SDR (or roughly US$1,728 / €1,599)

The cost of replacing or repairing a wheelchair or scooter far exceeds the liability limits of the Montreal Convention. In fact, standard power wheelchairs can cost anywhere from $2,000 - $6,000 USD and between $12,000 and $50,000 for fully customised ones5.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has recognized the need for harmonised  disability legislation to protect air passengers around the globe and have said, 

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We recognize the need to do more. One concern is the varying disability legislation across the globe, causing confusion for passengers with disabilities, difficulties for airlines, and potential safety issues. There is no universal definition of a passenger with disabilities or a consensus on minimum service levels they should expect when flying6.

Currently the European Commission is trying to decide whether or not to require airlines to report on KPIs for passenger rights compliance including the number of complaints they receive, the subject, and outcome of the complaints as well as the number of wheelchairs and mobility aids that are damaged or lost7.

Woman in a wheelchair

Existing Regulations for Transporting Mobility Aids 

United States

In the United States, the Air Carriers Access Act (ACAA) of 1986 was created to protect disabled persons during flights and allow them to travel easily, free from discrimination. The rules of the Act state, among other things, that collapsible wheelchairs and other mobility equipment will have priority over other passengers’ carry-on items in cabin storage as well as in the hold compartment. It also requires airlines to provide specifically trained “complaints resolution officials” to handle passenger issues8.

In 2021, the Airline Passengers with Disabilities Bill of Rights was created. With regard to carriage of wheelchairs and assistive devices. It states that:

  • Carriers must allow assistive devices in the cabin without charge as long as they comply with safety regulations. They also will not be considered part of that passenger's carry-on limit.
  • Priority cabin storage must be made available for a minimum of one “normal-sized collapsible manual wheelchair” in planes with at least 100 passenger seats. 
  • Carriers must check and return all assistive devices to passengers at the gate upon arrival in the same condition as it was when checked.
  • If mobility equipment is lost, damaged, or destroyed, then the passenger must be compensated “up to the original purchase price” of the mobility aid”. More specifically, if the item is destroyed or lost, then the airlines must pay the original cost. If the item is damaged, the carrier has to pay up to the original price9.

European Union 

The European Union created EC 1107/2006 to protect disabled passengers as well as those with reduced mobility when travelling by air in Europe. Like EU261 regulations, it protects passengers travelling from an EU member state, or to an EU member state on an EU or UK airline. Its laws safeguard disabled passengers from discrimination and ensure they get the assistance they need.

These regulations also require airlines to “transport all necessary medical equipment” including up to “2 pieces of mobility equipment per passenger”. 

When wheelchairs and assistive devices are damaged during a flight, EC 1107/2006 requires airlines and airports to compensate the owners, but it doesn’t necessarily require airlines to cover the full cost of repairing or replacing these items10. Because of this, the rules of the Montreal Convention go into effect, and passengers will only be compensated up to £1,374 (€1,599). 

Some EU airlines have paid the full cost of damaged mobility equipment, going above and beyond the liability limits of the Montreal Convention, but this is only a case-by-case situation.

United Kingdom

Policies for wheelchair handling in the UK and compensation for damage is determined by airlines individually and governed by Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) regulations. The UK adopted the EU regulations EC 1107/2006 that we discussed above. So, once again, airlines are responsible if wheelchairs and mobility equipment are damaged during a flight11.

Additionally, the CAA also has specific policies in place on how airlines must handle wheelchairs and how disabled passengers should be treated - basically requiring carriers to provide passengers with reduced mobility support and assistance during flights.

Canada 

In Canada: The Accessible Transportation for Persons with Disabilities Regulations (ATPDR) state that the individual must be able to keep their wheelchair or scooter until it is absolutely necessary to store it. If there is limited room in the hold, then other cargo and baggage must be removed to make room for the mobility aid. As we mentioned above, many aircraft have cargo hold doors that are too small to accommodate wheelchairs over a certain size. 

So, if the wheelchair needs to be taken apart, Canadian regulations state that the airline must put it back together again, as soon as they reach the final destination, and return it to the owner without delay and as it was when it was turned over for storage. Also, the carrier may ask the owner to provide written directions for how to take it apart and put it back together again. In cases where the device is too big to fit into the baggage hold or cannot fit through the door, would compromise the plane's airworthiness, or exceeds the capacity of the lift or ramp, the airline can refuse to transport it12.

Fortunately though, many airlines provide cargo hold door dimensions for all their passenger aircraft so that passengers can plan accordingly.

Damage and compensation

If mobility equipment is damaged or destroyed, the airline must do the following:

  • Provide a temporary replacement that meets their needs 
  • Ensure that the temporary device or equipment will be able to be used until the passenger’s own model is returned or reimbursed by the carrier
  • Reimburse the individual for any expenses that resulted from the damage and absence of the wheelchair
  • The carrier must arrange for the repair or, if it is destroyed, they must replace it within 96 hours with the same make and model or a close equivalent or reimburse them for the full replacement cost.

New Rules on the Horizon

It goes without saying that there’s a lot of room for improvement, especially in light of the recent the viral TikTok video of American Airlines ground crew standing by as wheelchairs came crashing down a baggage shute13. Thankfully in February, the DOT met with disability advocates to discuss a new regulation that would classify wheelchair mishandling as a breach of the Air Carrier Access Act and simplify the process of holding carriers accountable for damage to or delays in returning wheelchairs.

Not only that, but the proposed regulation would make it mandatory for airlines to improve employee and contractor training to focus on the physical assistance of passengers with disabilities as well as how to handle wheelchairs and other mobility equipment14.

Changes in the UK

In June 2023, the UK unveiled new plans to better protect airline passengers with reduced mobility. Part of these new rules include a full compensation for passengers whose wheelchairs are damaged on domestic flights. 

Another component of these new rules ensures that ground crew is properly trained in handling wheelchairs and mobility equipment to reduce the number of incidents and improve the passenger experience15.

When Your Wheelchair is Damaged or Lost

We hope you never have to deal with having your wheelchair or scooter lost or damaged after a flight, but if you do, here are some steps to take so you can have the issue resolved as quickly as possible.

  1. Report the issue right away, and ideally while you’re still at the airport. You can also do this online for some airlines which can save you the trouble of having to make your way to the baggage reclaim area. Whatever you do, file a report first because compensation claim success can hinge on whether or not you submitted a report.
  2. Take photos of any damage sustained and write down anything you noticed or the chain of events if it pertains to your experience. For example, you might want to take note of information or treatment given to you by the airline as well as time and dates for each. Also, remember to keep all your documents for your flight including bag tags, booking receipts, boarding passes, and anything else you can think of to bolster your case. All this information will make your compensation case stronger.
  3. Request a replacement wheelchair from the airline as it’s your right to have a replacement. It may also be beneficial to get as much information as you can from the airline about how long it will take to get a replacement, and when you can expect your own wheelchair to be repaired or replaced.
  4. File a claim with the airline. You can usually do this through a dedicated page on the airline’s site. Most times, you will have to write a letter that includes the basics of what the claim is about, so you’ll need to provide times and dates of your flight, flight number(s), booking information, and where you were travelling to and from. Before you submit your claim, you will be able to upload your supporting documents. 
  5. Be persistent and follow up regularly. Carriers can take awhile to respond, but if you don’t get a satisfactory response, don’t hesitate to contact the aviation authority in the country where the carrier is registered or based. Another option is to lodge a complaint in the country where the mishandling happened if it happens to be different from where the airline is based.

References:


1 CBC 

2 USA Facts 

3 Top 4 Causes of Wheelchair Damage on Flights

4 ‘You literally stole my independence’: What happens when an airline breaks a wheelchair | GBH

5 10 Best Electric Wheelchairs Of 2024 – Forbes Health

6 Air Travel Accessibility

7 Disabled passengers push for EU to reform ‘nightmare’ air travel – POLITICO

8 About the Air Carrier Access Act | US Department of Transportation

9 Airline Passengers with Disabilities Bill of Rights | US Department of Transportation

10 Regulation - 1107/2006 - EN - EUR-Lex

11 Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) - "Passengers with Reduced Mobility and Disabilities "Regulation (EC) No 1107/2006 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 5 July 2006 concerning the rights of disabled persons and persons with reduced mobility when travelling by air

12 Accessible Transportation for Persons with Disabilities Regulations ( SOR /2019-244)

13 Video: American Airlines Investigates Baggage Handlers’ Mishandling of Wheelchairs

14 https://www.npr.org

15 New plans to boost protections for airline passengers - GOV.UK

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