Jessica Dalonzo was worried the first time she flew with her power wheelchair last month. She’d heard horror stories from other travelers, and her manual chair had been damaged on previous flights.
But the 22-year-old trusted the customized device — with careful instructions attached — to Delta when she flew from New York to Orlando for a Disney World vacation. It was damaged upon arrival, but fixable in about an hour. Things got much worse on the way home, she said.
“They told me it never made it on the plane with me,” she said. While she flew back to New York, the chair ended up in California. Once it reached Dalonzo the next day, she said, it was broken again — and, more than a month later, still is. She said Delta will pay for it to be fixed or replaced, as required by the Air Carrier Access Act. Until then, she can only use the chair for short distances.
“We know our customers with disabilities rely on Delta for their travel needs, and while the majority of wheelchairs and scooters enplaned by Delta are not mishandled, we understand the frustration that comes when we fall short,” the airline said in a statement. “We sincerely apologize for this customer’s experience and are affirmatively working with the customer to make things right via repairs and compensation.”
Dalonzo’s experience — though unique for its repeated bad luck — is far from a one-off. Since the Transportation Department started tracking in December 2018 through May of this year, travelers have reported nearly 26,000 instances of wheelchairs or scooters being mishandled.
Passengers with disabilities have also described long waits for check-in help; bungled security screenings; clumsy assistance transferring onto planes, which can result in injuries; delays while waiting for wheelchairs after flights; slow and lax DOT enforcement; and a lack of recourse to hold airlines accountable.
“Practically everyone who uses a wheelchair and flies, including colleagues of mine here at the DOT, has a troubling story about an airline experience,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said during an event marking the anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act on July 26. “Many have far more than one.”
Travelers who spoke to The Washington Post said they’ve noticed preexisting issues get worse this summer as labor shortages and frequent disruptions continue. Disability-related complaints to the Transportation Department hit 158 in May alone, more than double the number in 2019.
Airlines, industry groups and federal authorities say they’re taking the problem seriously.
“U.S. airlines are committed to offering a high level of customer service and providing a positive and safe flight experience for all passengers, especially those in need of additional assistance or traveling with mobility aids,” Airlines for America, a trade group, said in a statement. “We are committed to continuing to work with the disability community, aircraft and mobility aid manufacturers and safety regulators to explore safe and feasible solutions that reduce barriers to air travel.”
Advocates say they want to see more progress.
“I have seen a lot of airlines communicating statements that they want to become the most accessible and the most inclusive airline,” said Alvaro Silberstein, co-founder and chief executive of Wheel the World, a booking platform for accessible travel experiences. “But I haven’t seen like real actions behind those statements.”
The Transportation Department has taken steps so far this year to address some major concerns involving accessible bathrooms on planes, allowing travelers to bring their own mobility devices on board, wheelchair handling and more. But some of those moves might not result in meaningful action for years — or even decades. And a recently unveiled bill of rights for passengers with disabilities is just a summary of laws already on the books.
“They’re working on all this stuff … but unfortunately it’s still baby steps toward getting to truly equitable travel,” said Alex Elegudin, president of New York City-based Wheeling Forward, which offers services to people with disabilities.
He and three other travelers and advocates for people with disabilities said there is more airlines and the government could — and should — do.
Carriers must cover the cost of repairs or replacement if a wheelchair is damaged or destroyed. But John Morris, founder of the accessible travel site Wheelchair Travel, who has been on more than 50 flights this year, said they would have a greater incentive to improve if they were held more accountable.
Morris says that should happen in two ways: greater enforcement by the Transportation Department and private civil action by passengers under the Air Carrier Access Act.
One big problem: Travelers can’t sue airlines for breach of the act, aviation attorney Tom Stilwell said in an email, although they can use the law to define what an airline owes them if they sue under other state laws.
Morris said Congress would need to spell out the ability for travelers to sue under the law. Travelers who have a wheelchair that gets destroyed could lose mobility for months, he said, and may face a loss of wages, health complications or other ramifications that would not be covered by an airline.
“I think that something that would make airlines take the Air Carrier Access Act more seriously is if they could find themselves in a court of law being challenged for their failure to deliver on their obligations,” he said.
The typical recourse for a traveler is to file a DOT complaint; the department warns that its response “will likely take some time” and that if it levies fines, those penalties are paid to the government, not to the person who filed the complaint. Often, an enforcement action will not include a fine but rather a demand that an airline stop some behavior. Morris said the DOT has “failed miserably” in this area.
The department did not respond to a request for comment about its enforcement of disability complaints. Its website lists six enforcement orders since 2017, including dismissals, with penalties against four airlines that total $975,000.
In March, the Transportation Department announced a proposed rule to make at least one lavatory on single-aisle planes — which fly the majority of domestic routes — large enough to be accessible to wheelchair users. Planes with more than one aisle already need to have an accessible restroom.
“Travelers with disabilities shouldn’t have to choose between dehydrating themselves or avoiding air travel altogether,” Buttigieg said. “And yet to date there is no federal rule requiring accessible lavatories on single-aisle aircraft, and we know that it’s time to change that.”
The effort has been underway for several years and appeared to make progress in 2016 with an agreement among advocates, airlines, plane manufacturers and others. But the momentum stalled, prompting a lawsuit from a veterans group.
The rule is far from immediate: Under the agreement reached in 2016, it would apply to new planes ordered 18 years, or delivered 20 years, after the rule was finalized. Older planes would not have to be retrofitted. The department said it could adjust that timeline and is looking for ways improvements could be made more quickly.
Every traveler The Post spoke to said it would be a game changer if they could board the plane with their chair and keep it in the cabin. Most have to be transferred to a small chair that fits in an airplane aisle, usually with assistance, and then moved to their seat while their wheelchair goes under the plane. That increases the risk of both damage to the chair and injury while being transferred.
“No other form of transportation — trains, buses, boats — forces you to give up your mobility device when you board. The same ought to be true of airlines,” Buttigieg said last month. “So in the months and years ahead we plan to work toward a new rule that will allow passengers to stay in their personal wheelchairs when they fly. We know this won’t happen overnight, but it is a goal that we have to work to fulfill.”
Dalonzo said being able to bring her chair on a plane — and sit on it during a flight — would make a big difference.
“Just sitting on the regular airline seat is so uncomfortable for me,” she said. “So if I could have my own chair, I could go further; I don’t really travel far.”
Even if travelers would still need to move to an airplane seat once on the plane, they said the experience would be far better than it is now, because transferring to a seat on the plane could be easier if they boarded using their own chair, and their device would be less likely to get damaged.
“I think that that is a tremendous opportunity not only for airlines, but it would dramatically improve the independence and self-determination of disabled people,” Morris said.
He said systems for securing wheelchairs would still need to be approved and regulated — steps that should be taken quickly.
“What I don’t want to see is sort of a cautious or delayed regulatory process, like we’ve seen with accessible toilets,” Morris said. “This is not something that people should have to wait four or five decades to see become a reality.”
Travelers also said that people who handle wheelchairs and assist wheelchair users should get more training. Dalonzo said she explained to workers how to use her chair and drive it.
“And it’s still broken,” she said.
Elegudin said he’s watched baggage handlers flip his chair on its side and upside down.
“I’ve literally sat in my seat, looking outside the window and seeing them handling my chair and getting both furious and about to cry because I see what they’re doing,” he said. “And there’s no way that the chair’s going to survive.”
He said workers need better training in transferring people with disabilities. He believes many are expecting older passengers who may just need to be pushed in a wheelchair because they can’t walk a long distance through the airport.
Silberstein said that even in pre-pandemic times, he did not get the sense that people who provided wheelchair assistance were happy in their jobs, whether because of low pay, insufficient training or other work conditions. Those workers are typically employed by companies that are contractors for airlines and depend on tips to make up for low wages.
Morris said improving working conditions — and paying more — would also help address the staffing shortage.
“Make the role more attractive to workers and you’ll see demand for the roles,” he said.
Travelers interviewed by The Post said they frequently end up waiting on the plane for their chair, or being moved from the plane to wait in an airline-provided chair until their own device is brought up.
Elegudin describes it as a “temporary rinky-dink airport wheelchair that’s not made for me.”
“And I’m sitting in that for a half an hour to 40 minutes waiting for my actual chair to show up from wherever it’s supposed to show up from,” he said.
He said he’s traveled in other countries where wheelchairs are quickly returned to the disembarkation area — a much better scenario.
Silberstein, who typically travels with an electric device attached to his manual wheelchair, said travelers need one airline to decide to differentiate itself and take actions that are more friendly to passengers with disabilities.
“That will allow the rest of the industry to follow,” he said.
Elegudin said the community needs champions — both in the political sphere and in the industry.
“I wish there was a way where one airline would do it and people would say, you know what, that’s the airline I’m going to fly,” he said. “I’m going to make that the airline of my choice because they’ve chosen to go the equitable route.”