Cindy Otis has seen the world from her power chair. She still thinks airlines could do more to prevent damage

Cindy Otis

Cindy Otis has seen the world from her power chair. She still thinks airlines could do more to prevent damage

When airlines break her power chair, cybersecurity expert Cindy Otis says she “doesn’t have time to wait.” And so she sometimes pays for repairs herself, hoping the airline will reimburse her. 

The frequent flier from the East Coast knows she is fortunate to have the financial means to make that happen. 

About 30% of people with a mobility disability live in poverty compared with 11% of Americans without that kind of impairment, according to an analysis of 2017 Census data by the Employment and Disability Institute at Cornell University. 

Even those who do not live in poverty often have tight monthly budgets because of increased spending on health care needs, leaving them little room to manage a financial emergency like fixing a broken chair or missing weeks of work because of such damage.

“These companies are jeopardizing people’s ability to keep their jobs and to keep their health,” Otis said. “I don’t think most airlines think this way.”

Cindy Otis, a cyber-security expert from the East Coast, has traveled the world for work. Often, she says her power chair is damaged during flights, including in October when her joystick control was smashed. Here she is seen in Greece. Cindy Otis | Courtesy photo

Airlines have varying procedures for responding to complaints about damaged mobility aids, but Otis said they all have one flaw.

“The work is on the individual who suffered in the first place,” she said, describing the numerous forms, repeated phone calls waiting hours on hold, and emails that are never answered. “Filling out the paperwork is really only the first step. I’ve had instances where it’s gone as far as I had to try to sue them.”

Otis has flown to Bali, Turkey, Peru, Iceland and Greece, among other destinations. Often, she has to book last-minute trips for work. She has a travel routine and knows how to explain her needs to the agents, baggage handlers and crew members assisting her on flights. Still, her power chair often comes back to her mangled. 

She has seen bars broken, tires melted, and “metal pieces of my chair liquefied.” On a work trip in October, the joystick to drive her chair was shattered. Another time, handlers dropped Otis’ chair out of the cargo hold and returned it “smashed to pieces, wheels falling off, (and with) armrests split.”

“It was so badly mutilated I legitimately did not recognize it at first,” she said. 

A loaner chair is not a good option for Otis. She’s shorter than most adults and her chair is custom-fitted. Having the right features, she said, “can mean the difference between being healthy and not.” Her chair also is designed to lock into her car so she can drive, something rental chairs cannot do.

She is one of many travelers who support efforts to add tie-down systems to planes so that chair users can roll on, strap down, and sit in their own chair on flights. 

“We have crash-tested solutions for cars,” Otis said. “There is no reason there can’t be on-board seating like that on an airplane as well. You wouldn’t have to take people’s very specialized equipment, which determines the fate of lives, and put it in a location where it’s not secured and protected.” 

Or, Otis said, American companies could learn a lesson from other nations.

“In developing countries, my wheelchair always is treated like gold. It’s never gotten damaged,” she said. “It’s appeared to me that the staff at those airports were way more concerned about damaging the chair. They seemed to understand that this is a very expensive and sophisticated piece of mobility equipment.

“You go to L.A. or something, well, I hope I see my chair again.”

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