'Massive' lack of empathy makes things tough for disabled travelers

Sean Baumstark said the damage to his walker could have been much worse, but he’s still annoyed by what happened on a Southwest Airlines flight.

“This incident is child’s play compared to the many others, but it started with, first, my walker or rollator being left at the departure city,” he told USA TODAY. He traveled from Sacramento, California, to Las Vegas on July 13 and it wasn’t until the next day that his walker caught up with him.

Baumstark, who has Friedreich’s Ataxia, said his rollator is an important mobility aid even if he isn’t completely reliant on it 100% of the time, and he was frustrated to find it was damaged in addition to being delayed when he went to pick it up.

“I immediately said (to the agent at the airport) ‘that’s broken, we need to notate that. It’s still functional, I’ll take it, but this is not the way I gave it to you,’ ” he said. The broken piece was the carrying basket, and although the walker still worked as a mobility aid, he said the damage affected how easy the device was to use.

“If I’m trying to carry my coffee because I don’t have a bag to put it in, that makes it difficult while using the rollator,” he said. “It does have a domino effect in making things challenging. This is so vain, but there’s a vanity piece to it, too. If my walker looks broken, that’s embarrassing.”

Sean Baumstark with a rollator.
Sean Baumstark with a rollator.

Baumstark said Southwest Airlines’ contractor for mobility device repair, Global Repair Group, initially suggested he fix his rollator himself.

“I responded with no, that’s not good enough for me, for two reasons. My disability makes it difficult for me to tinker with small parts or small areas, so dexterity, muscle control, all of that is not my forte,” he said. “More importantly to me, I didn’t want to invest any more of my time on their mistake.”

Baumstark had already had to take an Uber back and forth from the airport to pick up his delayed and damaged device. Baumstark said he has not received any reimbursement for his ride-hailing services.

Southwest previously said it works with all customers who have mobility device damage occur while traveling.

“Our teams have been in touch with the customer to assist them with their individual situation,” the airline said in a statement to USA TODAY.

Ultimately, Global Repair Group agreed to replace Baumstark’s walker, and he said the new device was waiting for him at home when he returned from his trip. Although he said the system for repair and replacement worked “flawlessly as designed” in his situation, he still feels airlines could do much better overall.

He said there should be better training for baggage handlers and that airlines should continue working to develop in-cabin wheelchair securement seats. In addition, he said airline employees should just be more accommodating overall.

“Maybe a little more empathy would be good. There’s a massive lack of that,” he said. “The facial expressions and the tone of voice lead me to believe that they take it personally that I’m asking for a preboard pass.”

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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. In 2022, that translated to 11,389 incidents reported by U.S. airlines, up from 7,239 in 2021.

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:

Zach Wichter is a travel reporter for USA TODAY based in New York. You can reach him at

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'A domino effect': Even minor device damage is bad for disabled flyers