Wheels Up


By: Eric Anderson

Flying on an airplane with a wheelchair or other disability related mobility device can be frustrating, difficult, denigrating, and sometimes a complete nightmare. As a quadriplegic that frequently travels on airplanes, I know the process and the numerous undertakings involved in loading a person with a disability and wheelchair onto a plane first-hand. Fortunately, most of my flights have been generally a smooth experience. However, there are varying degrees of disability, and unfortunately most individuals that travel in wheelchairs aren’t as lucky as I am. Typically, the more severe the disability and limitations of the passenger, the more complex and difficult travelling by airplane will pose on the person.

Many people with disabilities use a large power wheelchair, some weighing 500 pounds or more. These motorized chairs must be physically lifted onto a conveyer belt, and then placed on its side in the cargo hold. This explains why the most damaged part of a wheelchair are typically the armrests, joystick, and control mechanism. In addition, the process of lifting the person with a disability into a small aisle chair, covering them in multiple straps and safety belts, and then transferring the individual into an airplane seat almost never goes fluently. This operation is imperfect to say the least, and many times the disabled person is dropped. Getting on an airplane is undoubtedly a humiliating experience for people with disabilities. That is why a collective call for change is being demanded by the disability community.

What is Being Done?

Many passengers with disabilities want to remain in their wheelchairs on a flight, and last September, a committee of experts convened by the U.S. Transportation Research Board (TRB) concluded a preliminary study into systems which use straps like a seat belt or other mechanism to secure a wheelchair to an airplane’s floor. The study concluded most airliners in use have a main boarding door wide enough for most personal wheelchairs, and that the interior of the most common model airplanes would require only “modest” modifications to create an area where a wheelchair could be secured. In theory, allowing disabled passengers to remain in their wheelchairs during a flight would satisfy the numerous safety rules and regulations required by numerous government agencies. So, where is the progress towards making such a transition? Ultimately, while the airline industry and government committees continue to debate the safety implications of allowing wheelchairs on flights, the real obstacle not being discussed openly is the cost-effectiveness of such changes.

If you’ve ever flown on any airline, it is painstakingly obvious the rows of seats are closer together, leaving passengers little leg room, with the sole purpose of fitting as many passengers into the plane as possible. Removing seats to allow for wheelchairs would not only cost airline manufacturers millions of dollars, but air carriers would also lose revenue from the loss of coveted front row seats. Boeing and Airbus are not going to incur the costs of modifications if there isn’t a demand from Delta, American Airlines, and other airlines, to purchase the modified planes. Therefore, the demand by disabled passengers for wheelchair accessible planes must satisfy the potential loss in revenue of removing proposed seats. According to sources within the aerospace industry that I spoke with for this blog post, it is their opinion the only way wheelchairs are allowed on airplanes is if the government subsidizes the costs of the modifications to the airplanes and their purchase by airline carriers.

So, What Can We Do?

Most importantly the disability community must collectively bargain and call for action by documenting our flying challenges and mishaps, filing complaints, reaching out to local media, write your representatives in Washington, and advocate for equal access and our civil rights. Do not remain silent. The federal government subsidizes healthcare, fossil fuels, pharmaceuticals, housing, student loans, and even the airline industry – the funding required to pay for the modifications can easily be found. Unquestionably this matter will be endlessly debated, so it would be sensible for wheelchair users to focus their protest and demands for change on more practical solutions in the present. For example, some type of protective device for power wheelchairs when stored in the cargo hold. Plus, we need better trained assistants to help transfer people with disabilities from their wheelchair to a seat on the airplane. Transfer services are outsourced by airline carriers to third-party contractors, so we must contact these companies, file complaints, write the Better Business Bureau, and demand more training and assistance.

Furthermore, if you are injured from a fall and/or your wheelchair is damaged during a flight, immediately file a complaint with the Complaint Resolution Officer (CRO) before leaving the airport. The law requires that airline carriers always have a CRO on duty and available to you anytime. Also, you’ll want to file an Air Carrier Access Act violation with the Department of Transportation – this can be done up to 45 days after your flight. If your wheelchair is damaged, typically the law entitles compensation for the original price of your device. If repair costs are involved, you’re entitled to reimbursement for that amount, too. Airlines are also responsible for loaner equipment in the event you need to purchase temporary devices. If you have a disability and use a wheelchair, walker, or scooter, and are travelling by plane, communicate your needs in a respectful and assertive manner. Carefully articulate the importance of your wheelchair and the assistance you require with every employee you talk to either by phone or in person.

Can I Sue the Airlines?

Air travel was excluded from the Americans with Disabilities Act, the law that protects the civil rights of disabled people; however, 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 sue for damages, while the Air Carrier Access Act gives more limited options, most commonly filing a complaint with the federal government or airline. Suing an airline for damages requires a skilled, and experienced personal injury attorney with extensive knowledge of the ADA and airline regulations pertaining to people with disabilities.

If you are disabled and have been injured by an airline carrier, please contact The Spinal Cord Injury Law Firm for a free consultation to discuss your rights. Phone: 1-877-SCI-FIRM or email: info@spinalcordinjurylawyers.com