When Heather Bennett’s wheelchair was damaged on a Delta Air Lines flight from Washington (DCA) to Boston in March, she wasn’t surprised.
“The important backstory on this: I was traveling in a wheelchair that is still broken from an incident in August of 2022,” she said. “My chair usually is damaged on every single flight, but I don’t bother to report the more minor or cosmetic damage because it’s just not worth my time.”
However, the most recent incident in March, which compounded that existing damage from a previous Delta flight, was serious enough to warrant a report.
The August incident left the wheelchair’s backrest release bar, the wheels, the endcaps on the frame and the backrest itself damaged. The March incident led to further damage to the backrest release bar and push rims of her manual wheelchair.
Tell us your story:Mobility device lost or damaged by an airline? USA TODAY wants to hear about it.
“I watched the baggage handlers pick up my wheelchair by the backrest release bar, and that bar is a moveable part, and it’s not meant to support the weight of the chair,” the Washington-area attorney said. “I’m in my seat, and all I want to do is run out and tell them to stop what they’re doing, but I can’t do that.”
Bennett said repairs for the original August damage were conducted late last year but did not fully fix the original problems.
“Physically, it was causing injury to me. There were repairs done in November that were done improperly that made my chair more damaged than when it came off the plane in August,” said Bennett, who has a condition that has affected her ability to walk since childhood and, like most daily wheelchair users, has a custom-fitted device. “It was discovered that the wheelchair repair vendor had not ordered the right parts.”
While waiting for the latest round of repairs, Bennett wound up ordering an entire backup wheelchair, which cost her about $7,000. She plans on not traveling with the backup chair once she receives it.
“I can’t take it on an airplane because it will be damaged,” she said, adding that her financial losses are compounded by having to miss work.
A Delta Air Lines spokesperson said in a statement that the company is working with Bennett to get the issue resolved.
“We consider a wheelchair an extension of a person, and while the vast majority of wheelchairs and scooters enplaned by Delta are fully handled with our high standard of care, we understand the frustration that comes when we fall short,” the statement said. “We sincerely apologize for this customer’s experience and have been in direct contact with them to make things right.”
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In the meantime, Bennett said, she’s considering other measures to make traveling easier.
“I’m not paralyzed, I’ve got one leg that is at high risk for amputation, and the thing that I’m seriously considering at this point is below-the-knee amputation because I could probably get out of the wheelchair part of the time,” she said. “The fact that I’m thinking about amputation partly to make my travel experiences better is insane on a certain level.”
She’s also anticipating the likelihood of more wheelchair damage on an upcoming trip.
“I don’t know when the end date on this is,” she said. “I fly again in June. It’s just a never-ending cycle.”
How common is mobility equipment damage in air travel?
According to the Department of Transportation, airlines “mishandle” on average about 1.5% of the mobility equipment they transport.
This year, USA TODAY wants to highlight what those figures mean for travelers with disabilities. We’re looking to track these incidents throughout 2023 with the goal of bringing light to an all-too-common problem.
If your own mobility equipment was damaged or lost by an airline this year, please share your story with us using the form below: