Airlines need to stop treating mobility equipment as luggage, disabled traveler says

·4 min read

Amanda Parkman's wheelchair suffered some cracks and a broken headlight cover after a trip earlier this month.

It was annoying, but it could have been much worse.

When the 36-year-old assistant professor at the University of Arizona traveled from Tucson, Arizona, to New Orleans on Feb. 2, she was prepared for possible complications. She was flying by herself, as she usually does, but as someone who relies on a wheelchair to get around, dealing with the vagaries of air travel can be frustrating, she told USA TODAY.

This time, she said, she got off relatively lucky. Although Parkman couldn't speak to the ramp workers at the airport in Las Vegas where she was connecting before her chair was improperly loaded – on its side, from what she could see – the resulting damage was mostly cosmetic. A plastic cover on one of her headlamps was cracked and fell off in New Orleans, and another piece that covers some of the chair's mechanisms was also cracked at some point along her journey. She returned to Tucson via Houston on Feb. 13.

Stuck: Imagine being 'forgotten' in an airport basement for hours. This traveler lived it.

'If I can do this, I can do anything': How this Tahoe nonprofit empowers travelers with disabilities

"Consistency across airports, it's never the same," she said, referring to the way disabled passengers are communicated with and treated by airlines and airports around the world.

Parkman has osteogenesis imperfecta, also known as brittle bones, and always has to ensure airline and airport employees understand how to handle her wheelchair. She almost always tries to speak to the ramp supervisor before her chair is loaded on the plane and provides written instructions with photos on how to load and store it, with varying results on every trip.

Amanda Parkman
Amanda Parkman

"I got lucky this time that it was usable, but there have been situations where it wasn't," she said. "(The airlines) don't understand we rely on the way a wheelchair is designed for our independence."

She reached out to Southwest Airlines after noticing the damage and said she's still waiting to hear back about how the issue will be addressed. She expects the airline will cover the costs of the repairs her chair needs as they're required to do by federal regulation, but said carriers across the board need to do better in handling mobility equipment because issues are all too common.

"Airlines haven't thought through what they'd do if they damage a wheelchair and a person is by themselves," she said. "I am able to live independently as long as my wheelchair is in working condition."

Parkman received an email response to her complaint on Monday, March 20, and her wheelchair was repaired on March 23.

In an email, which USA TODAY reviewed,Tiffany Gainous, a customer advocacy specialist at Southwest Airlines said in the email to Parkman:

All of our frontline employees receive initial and recurrent training on the proper way to safely handle assistive devices. We expect our employees to treat our customers' belongings as their own, and our employees are trained to place luggage on baggage belts with a care. You have our sincere apologies if your luggage encountered a ramp agent who was not meeting this expectation. ... We continue to focus on this extremely important issue to do everything we can to ensure that we transport our customers' assistive devices safely and that we deliver those devices in the same condition in which they were checked, regrettably, we failed to comply with federal regulations in this instance given you wheelchair was damaged while in our care. I apologize for the inconvenience this has caused you.

In previous incidents with other airlines, Parkman said her wheelchair has been rendered unusable. This is her first incident in 2023.

"The thing that I really want to see is that airlines really start taking this serious," she said. "They just treat it as luggage, they treat it as an item that they don't really need to think about what they're doing."

While cosmetic repairs can happen fairly quickly, getting a full chair replaced can take months in the event of major damage, Parkman said.

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 issue.

If your own mobility equipment was damaged or lost by an airline this year, please share your story with us using the form below:

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Airlines 'treat it as luggage': Wheelchair user calls for improvements