Afraid to fly
Travelers with power chairs report damage, injuries and lost opportunities
Nov. 11, 2019
The first warnings about air travel came from the doctors treating Kenny Salvini for an injury that paralyzed all his limbs.
They said the same hefty, motorized wheelchair that would give him independence also was the reason he should never buy a plane ticket again.
“They basically said, ‘Don’t fly because the airlines are going to break your stuff,’” the Seattle disability advocate recalled.
Air travel poses a particular dilemma for power chair users like Salvini.
They can fly with the custom equipment they need to thrive, but that puts it at risk for damage during a flight. Or, travelers can leave their power chairs at home but compromise their health and freedom during the trip.
The third option: Don’t fly at all. And miss weddings, funerals and career opportunities.
As GateHouse Media reported in October, airlines damage or lose an average of 29 wheelchairs and scooters every day, according to new federal data collected since December 2018.
The U.S. Department of Transportation does not distinguish wheelchair types, so it’s impossible to know exactly how many power chairs were among those mishandled. New data released Thursday tallied 7,747 mobility aids that were damaged or lost in the first nine months of this year.
But dozens of travelers and workers interviewed by GateHouse Media say airlines break bulky motorized chairs and their delicate electronic parts more frequently than manual wheelchairs. And because power chairs routinely cost more than $20,000 — compared to about $2,000 for a custom-fit manual chair — repairs are more expensive and often take longer.
“I drive the chair with my head,” Salvini said. “They don’t have head-control wheelchairs just sitting around.”
Equipment damage is only one of several reasons people who use chairs avoid flying.
Travelers can be injured when moved from their wheelchair to a narrow aisle chair to their assigned seat on the plane. Some also risk health problems — skin shearing, headaches, blurry vision and even stroke — from spending hours in a seat not designed to accommodate their specific conditions. And then there’s the fact that only the largest, two-aisle planes have accessible bathrooms.
“They created this system where people are afraid to fly,” Salvini said. “So people just don’t do it.”
Travelers and disability advocates called on airlines and federal regulators to work with them more urgently to reduce the frequency of damage, loss and injury.
Last year, a federal funding bill included a requirement for the U.S. Access Board to study the feasibility of allowing people to roll onto planes in their own chairs and to have them strapped down during flight, an idea some say would reduce the majority of challenges faced by travelers with those mobility aids.
“We’re talking about civil liberties and civil rights,” said U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, an Illinois Democrat and veteran who uses a chair. “Just because you use a wheelchair or a scooter doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have access to travel on commercial aircraft.”
Heavy, yet fragile
The same power chair features enabling users to live independently break most frequently during travel.
These include full-height backrests, heavy motors, seats that lift or tilt, and electronic controls that users move by hand, head or mouth. They can weigh 300 pounds or more.
Unlike manual chairs — the kind with two big wheels that users push themselves — motorized chairs are not lightweight and only sometimes fold.
“I didn’t realize this before my dad’s injury, but power chairs come in a really wide range of features and cushion types,” said Amanda Bonman of Louisiana, whose father was paralyzed during a home invasion shooting in 2011. “Having a chair that’s suited for his needs is really important. Even pressure sores can become deadly. He’s had to have surgery for them before.”
It takes multiple baggage handlers to maneuver a power chair from the jetway to the ground and then hoist it onto a conveyor belt into the cargo hold. Tall chairs might have to be angled or disassembled to fit through cargo doors.
Cellphone videos shared by travelers with GateHouse Media and posted publicly to social media sites show handlers breaking chairs by forcing unmovable components to fold or tipping chairs on their sides, crushing critical parts. Some have fallen off conveyor belts.
Luggage that shifts during flight also can break chair parts — damage that often happens when handlers stack bags on top of mobility aids.
When Katharine Hunter-Zaworski served on recent American and Canadian panels tasked with reviewing the accessibility of air travel, the civil engineer and Oregon State University professor said panelists were surprised to learn that not all airlines secure wheelchairs in the cargo hold.
“One of the things that was staggering to everyone was the question of, ‘Well, doesn’t everyone tie them down?’” she said. “And the answer is no. We were amazed to find that air carriers don’t all tie them down in the cargo hold.”
Those that aren’t secured can be tossed against walls or tipped over by turbulence.
A May 2019 report by Hunter-Zaworski for the Canadian Transportation Agency found that manufacturers offer cargo hold securement options for all aircraft, but not all airlines choose to include them in the planes they order.
Federal rules also require disconnecting or removing certain power chair batteries before flight, creating more opportunities for something to go wrong.
For these reasons, Bonman said her father doesn’t fly. Instead, the family finds other ways to travel or skips long-distance trips like an annual Catholic conference they used to enjoy.
Bonman hopes the new federal reporting requirements will make it easier for Americans to understand the risks faced by passengers with mobility disabilities and encourage them to pressure airlines and federal leaders for action.
“Anyone can end up with a disability and rely on mobility tools like wheelchairs,” she said. “My dad’s story is proof.”
Others who use power chairs fly anyway but leave their own chairs at home, suffering health complications and enduring lost independence as a result.
That was the choice made by Kimbrah Gonzalez of San Diego when she traveled by plane last year to participate in a research study at Stanford University. She took a folding transport chair to avoid having her customized power chair lost or damaged.
The decision cost her.
Gonzalez, whose hypermobile joints, elastic skin and chronic fatigue severely limit her mobility, said the temporary chair exacerbated her symptoms and left her bedridden for weeks.
“The transport chair was so uncomfortable and caused my body a lot of pain,” she said. “That was really difficult when I knew I had this chair back at home that was so amazing.”
Gonzalez has twice been invited to return to Stanford to participate in additional medical research.
“I can’t do it,” she said.
Flying despite the risks
In 2016, Salvini, the Seattle advocate, decided to disregard his doctors’ advice not to fly.
He wanted to participate in United Spinal’s Roll on Capitol Hill, so he and his girlfriend planned a two-week vacation. They would fly from Seattle to New York, spend a few days sightseeing and then travel to Washington D.C., exploring along their way.
That first flight did not go well.
“I had never been to the East Coast,” he said, “and suddenly I’m there with a broken wheelchair and my backside all bloody from the transfer in the aisle chair and not being able to use my cushion” in the plane’s passenger seat.
Instead of returning home immediately, Salvini got treated at a local hospital then completed the trip with rental chairs while United Airlines’ medical equipment contractor scrambled to fix his own. The first loaner was driven by a joystick he could not use. The second was an ill-fitting manual chair.
“(I had) a gait belt wrapped around my chest and my arms awkwardly propped on pillows while my caregivers and girlfriend tag-teamed joystick duties in and out of narrow entryways and elevator doors,” he wrote about the experience in New Mobility magazine. “It was equal parts uncomfortable, demoralizing and humiliating.”
In the end, it took United six months to fix and return his power chair.
Less than a year later, his chair was again broken during a flight with Alaska Airlines, which he described as responding more quickly and thoroughly to his complaint.
Still, Salvini flies.
These days, he and his assistants have figured out “little hacks” to take apart his chair so it’s small enough to fit through cargo hold doors without being tipped on its side or disassembled by baggage handlers. He removes bolts and some controls and makes it as modular as possible. It hasn’t been severely broken since, he said.
He worries nonetheless.
“When I get off the plane, is my chair gonna be there?” he asked. “Are all my plans going to be hijacked by that broken piece of equipment? Am I going to spend three days at a medical provider’s office getting something fixed?
“The fear,” he said, “never really goes away.”
This story is part of an ongoing series. Read more about accessible air travel and review airline report cards at stories.usatodaynetwork.com/flying-while-disabled. Contact the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org or 941-361-4923 to tell her what questions you would like answered in future pieces and to share your own experience as a traveler or airport worker.