When Engracia Figueroa of Los Angeles boarded a flight she couldn’t have imagined what would happen to her next. Turns out, it happens to a lot of people. Airlines are losing and breaking peoples wheelchairs, which the disabled rely on to live their lives.
How many wheelchairs are damaged or lost by the airlines each year?
According to Department of Transportation data, in 2019 alone airlines report breaking or losing 10,548 wheelchairs, which amounts to 29 a day. That’s 29 lives disrupted. While the able-bodied tend to think of wheelchairs as interchangeable, nothing could be further from the truth. Engracia’s custom chair was made specifically for her injuries and cost around $30,000.
During the pandemic, when air travel was less popular, more than 6,500 wheelchairs and scooters were damaged on commercial flights (data from January 2020 to August 2021). This is just over 1.3% of wheelchairs and disability scooters on planes for that time period.
Unfortunately, Figueroa’s story has a tragic ending. After spending upwards of 5 hours in the airport in a manual wheelchair, an old sore opened and she spent the next three months enduring skin grafts to repair the damage. Ultimately, Engracia died from what her lawyers are now preparing to argue were injuries she incurred at the airlines’ negligence. While consumers will now wait to hear how her estate will fare in this lawsuit, the incident shines a harsh light on the airline policies that can exact a terrible price from disabled passengers.
Wheelchairs are an Extension of a Disabled Person’s Body
An able-bodied person may assume a broken or lost wheelchair might be something like a piece of lost luggage, an inconvenience but nothing more. Losing a wheelchair can actually disrupt every aspect of someone’s life. It can cut someone off indefinitely from their job or attending school. It can be a huge financial blow, since custom wheelchairs can easily cost upwards of $50,000. And even worse, it can pose a serious health risk, almost immediately. Pressure sores can develop within hours as blood flow is cut off to a particular area of the body, leading to the death of tissue and quickly putting the user at risk of infection.
Flying is Risky for the Disabled
Not only are wheelchairs being lost and broken, but disabled people also run the risk of being injured as they board and deplane. There’s a complicated “aisle chair” that a wheelchair-bound person is strapped into before being placed in an airplane seat and, of course, tiny airplane bathrooms are a menace for disabled people. Many wheelchair-bound passengers refrain from drinking liquids before a flight, to guard against needing a bathroom mid-flight.
More than a third of wheelchair-bound people simply do not fly at all. The experience is simply too fraught to be safe.
Can the airlines make flying safer for the disabled?
Activists are pushing for wheelchair-dedicated space aboard planes, much like what is available on city buses, so people need not be separated at all from their assistive devices. While this is technically and logistically feasible, so far the airlines, aside from offering words of support, do not see this as a financially feasible alternative to the current system.
Are there protections for disabled travelers on flights?
Air travel was excluded from the Americans with Disabilities Act, the landmark law that protects the civil rights of disabled people. There is a federal law that regulates air travel, the Air Carrier Access Act, which was passed four years prior to the ADA. This law ostensibly prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities on airplanes.
Under the ADA protections, a disabled person can actually sue for damages, while the Air Carrier Access Act gives more limited options, including filing a complaint with the federal government or airline.
The death of the vibrant Engracia Figueroa has had a galvanizing effect on disability activists surrounding this issue. We’ll continue to bring you coverage on this developing story as we hear about new developments in airline safety protocols.