Airlines and Wheelchairs, a Deadly Combination

The tragic loss of disability activist, actress and animal rights advocate Engracia Figueroa as a result of an Airlines disastrous handling of her damaged wheelchair is a stark reminder of the ongoing burden, hazards and risks that the disabled face when traveling by air. 

Engracia, returning from a speaking engagement to her home in Los Angeles, a speaking engagement where ironically, she protested the poor behaviour of airlines, died as a result of injuries after being forced to sit in a rental wheelchair for five hours. The airline meanwhile tried to repair the destroyed $30,000 electric wheelchair while arguing with Engracia and her friend. The injuries she received during those five hours never healed and she eventually had to enter ICU two months after the flight where she died. A completely avoidable death. 

It is not a well-known fact that 26-28 wheelchairs are damaged by American carriers every single day. The fallout from this is massive; the airlines don’t see the wheelchair as being a part of the user’s body. They view the wheelchair simply as luggage or cargo. Anyone who has flown regularly sees firsthand how cargo and luggage is treated by airport and airline workers. 

Breaking a wheelchair is exactly the same as breaking a passenger’s leg. The difference is a broken leg would elicit an instant reaction, rushed to hospital and treated immediately. Since the attitude towards a wheelchair is cavalier, there is no rush to deal with the issue. 

In my opinion this is directly related to a lack of representation. The managers tasked with ensuring wheelchairs are handled with the utmost care are not wheelchair users themselves. This is a very big problem. 

In 2018 Congress passed the Air Reauthorization Act which tasked airlines with treating disabled travelers better. Although it didn’t specify how, none of the airlines came up with their own strategy and today we see the exact same outcomes as 2018 despite much lower air traffic during the pandemic. 

Again, it is all tied to attitude. 

Although airlines deserve to be called out, so too do other aspects of air travel, notably the Transportation safety Authority, TSA. TSA has a history of bad behaviour around disabled flyers. Demeaning and humiliating behaviour. When called out on it they typically always support the employee whom the complaint is about, further humiliating the complainant.  As a deaf flyer I have been accused of taking illicit drugs by TSA because I didn’t respond to questioning and being sent to secondary inspection as a result of miscommunication.  Training is abysmal and again, no representation. When was the last time you met a disabled TSA agent?

Yes, many disabilities are invisible but I think you get my point. 

Recently, Heather Liederman, a blind flyer traveling with a service animal, a black Labrador named Coastie, was told to remove the dog’s collar for inspection. TSA regulations forbid the removal of a service animal’s collar, but the agent insisted. The dog knows it’s working if the collar is on and knows it’s a dog when the collars off. This created unnecessary anxiety for Heather and confusion for the service animal. 

When management were alerted the response was that the agent can do whatever he wants. 

And that’s why the majority of Americans who are wheelchair users avoid flying. 

Until airlines can safely park wheelchairs with the user in situ on an aircraft (and yes that is coming), it is incumbent on all airlines, airports and security screening to do a whole lot better.