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Airlines mishandle thousands of wheelchairs each year. These New Englanders want you to know how that puts them at risk.

“A lot of my friends won’t fly because they do not have another chair. And they can’t afford to not have the chair.”

The knee blocker on Matt Wetherbee's wheelchair was damaged by an airline in 2021. Courtesy of Matthew Wetherbee

Denna Laing was headed home. 

Looking out the window of a Delta airplane in March, she could see the Tampa ground crew as they loaded the luggage for the flight to Boston. 

She felt prepared.

It wasn’t her first time on a plane since she suffered a severe spinal cord injury during a Boston Pride exhibition game before the 2016 NHL Winter Classic at Gillette Stadium that left her with limited movement of her arms and no feeling in her legs. Over the years, she and her family had come up with a “pretty good system” for trying to ensure the custom wheelchair she uses, stored with the luggage in the bowels of the plane, arrives intact at her destinations: attach instructions to the power chair, take everything that is removable off it, and wrap the whole thing in bubble wrap.

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After that, she knew it was a matter of hoping for the best. 

So, as Laing got ready to return back to Boston from a trip to see her sister in the Premier Hockey Foundation playoffs, that’s what she did.

But then she watched the ground crew put her 350-pound power chair on its side and load it in the plane. She knew there was nothing she could do; the chair would be broken when they arrived in Boston. 

She just didn’t know how bad the damage would be. 

‘You can’t trust them’

The headrest of Erin Field’s chair was damaged in 2018. – Courtesy of Erin Field

Thousands of wheelchairs and scooters are damaged or lost in transit by airlines each year, an issue that disability rights advocates have been sounding the alarm about for years. In 2018, Congress required airlines and the Transportation Security Administration to make flying better for passengers with disabilities. Airlines were required to start reporting the number of lost or damaged wheelchairs and scooters at the end of 2018

In 2019, the first full year of reporting, 10,548 wheelchairs and scooters were lost, damaged, delayed, or stolen — amounting to about 29 incidents a day, according to The Washington Post. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, that number dropped dramatically to 3,464 in 2020, about 9.5 a day.

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The number began to rise again in 2021 as more people took to the skies amid the pandemic, with airlines reporting 7,239 wheelchairs and scooters were mishandled of the 532,306 transported — or roughly 19.8 a day.

The most recent data available from the U.S. Department of Transportation shows the trend continuing to rise. 

The first time 26-year-old Maine native Erin Field flew after suffering a spinal cord injury in 2017 at the age of 21, she didn’t know that wheelchairs are often damaged or broken by airlines. So when she traveled six months after her injury to return to college, she didn’t take any precautions. 

“I didn’t realize, ‘Oh, you should take your joystick and headrest and bring it on the flight with you because you can’t trust them,’” she recently told Boston.com. “I didn’t know that at the time.”

When she landed, she discovered that her chair’s headrest, which she was still relying on as she healed, had been snapped in half. 

“I got to school, and I remember I was just crying because I was like, ‘What do I do?’” she recalled. 

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She wrote to the airline, and they apologized, offering her a voucher for the flight.

“That was frustrating because that didn’t help my situation,” she said. 

Her mother ended up ripping off the part that broke, leaving the piece shorter and crooked. 

It’s the same headrest she has five years later. 

“It just sucks that that never got fixed,” Field said.

For the few other flights she’s taken since, Field has taken the same precautions as Laing. 

Still, there has been damage — scratches or bent metal. But never enough damage that prevented her from being able to use it.

“I got pretty lucky,” Field said. “But after that I just stopped flying, and I’ll just drive because it’s not worth getting my chair broken.” 

‘It’s a dangerous situation to be in’

The percentage of wheelchairs that are damaged may seem low, but Laing stressed during an interview with Boston.com that each one represents a person whose life is impacted.

It’s unacceptable for hundreds of “people to be without their chairs and their way of getting around and their way of being independent,” she said. 

When Laing landed in Boston in March, she was forced to wait in one of the airport’s wheelchairs as the ground crew worked to figure out how to get her own chair upright and out of the plane. 

“That process took a while,” she said. 

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Thankfully, when it was brought to her, her chair — though marred on the side that carried the weight through the trip — was still working. The joystick was askew, the arm suffered damage, and part of the chair’s casing had broken off. 

Laing filed a claim with Delta, which she said was then farmed out to Scoot Around. The company then sent the claim for repairs out to National Seating and Mobility, the company Laing got the chair from. 

“National Seating and Mobility has to do an evaluation,” Laing said. “And once they do their evaluation, then they have to write up a quote, and then they have to send that quote out to Delta’s insurance people. And then once they approve that, then they go ahead and they order the parts. And then you have to wait for the parts to come in.”

The Massachusetts resident was still waiting for the parts to come in to repair her chair in June when she flew to Minnesota to attend a wedding. This time, she and her mother added their phone numbers to the instructions attached to her chair so airline employees could call with any questions. 

They also added another note: Keep chair upright. 

The flight to the wedding went off without a hitch. 

Denna Laing. – Courtesy of Denna Laing

But once again, when Laing touched down with Delta in Boston on a Sunday in June, things began to unravel. The 31-year-old waited on the plane with another woman who needed her own power chair to be unloaded. 

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“We were waiting and waiting and waiting, and everyone left,” Laing said. “And that’s normal to be the last people off the plane. But we were waiting and waiting. And they were saying that the chairs are just taking a little longer.”

Eventually, the flight attendants and pilots disembarked. Laing estimated she and the other passenger waited for an hour on the plane. A gate agent came to say the wheelchairs were still being unloaded and offered that they could get off the plane using the airline’s aisle chair — a small wheelchair used to transport people from their own wheelchair to their seat on the plane —  and then wait in one of the airport’s wheelchairs. 

The other passenger declined, saying she didn’t want to wait in a chair that wasn’t her own. 

The move made sense to Laing, since the airport wheelchairs typically lack padding, support, and safety features. But she decided to get the process started, thinking that if she got off first, by the time she was transferred off the plane, the promised wait of just another 10 or 15 minutes for their own chairs would have closed. 

Sure enough, shortly after Laing got to the top of the jet bridge in one of the airport’s transport chairs, the other woman’s wheelchair was brought up. She got off the plane, got in it, and went on her way.

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Laing was told hers was next, but after another wait, a ramp manager came to tell her that her chair was broken. They couldn’t get it to move because the lever that changed the chair from power mode to a manual, free-wheel mode had been broken off either inflight or while it was being taken off the plane. She was told her chair would be brought down to baggage services, where she could start a claim with the airline.

Once there, Laing and her mother started the claim with Scoot Around. Instead of renting a chair from the company in the meantime, Laing’s cousin was able to go to her house and pick up her manual chair and bring it to the airport. 

“They wouldn’t really be able to provide me with anything that really would suit me anyway,” Laing said. “It’s not like they had any chairs there on site. We would have had to wait hours for them to figure out how to get me a chair.”

Laing still ended up waiting more than three hours, hoping to see what condition her chair was in. 

Seated in the airport’s chair, she started to get dysreflexic. When people with spinal cord injuries are uncomfortable or in pain below their injury, the body reacts with autonomic dysreflexia, a potentially life-threatening condition. 

“Some people get really high blood pressure, dangerously high blood pressure,” Laing said. “I start sweating. I break out in hives. So it’s a dangerous situation to be in.”

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Normally, when Laing becomes uncomfortable, she is able to relieve pressure on her own by tilting her power chair back. But seated in the airport’s wheelchair, there wasn’t anything she could do as she waited. 

She was only able to leave when her cousin arrived at the airport with her manual chair. 

She and her mother never physically saw her power chair before they left the airport. 

‘It’s just a mess’

Denna Laing’s wheelchair in the back of a Delta bag room. – Denna Laing

The day after Laing left the airport without her wheelchair, her father returned to try and locate it and find out what the plan was for getting it repaired. He found that it still wasn’t at baggage services, as staff had said it would be. Eventually, the chair was found in a bag room, where Laing said it was at risk for being further damaged by the heavy machinery used in the area to move luggage around. 

In the meantime, Laing and her mother were working the phones: calling Scoot Around and National Seating and Mobility and trying to reach Delta to get the chair picked up for evaluation and repair. Her mother spent seven hours trying to get through on the airline’s customer service line. 

By late June, Laing was still waiting for a quote to be written up and for Delta to approve. A month later, by late July, Laing said some of the parts on the chair had been replaced. The chair is functional enough for her to move around, but it is not fully fixed. 

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The process has been incredibly frustrating, Laing said.

“It’s been a lot of work from my family’s side to push these people to even get as far as we have so far. … I can’t even imagine someone who doesn’t have the support team that I do or the people willing to consistently call and call and call,” she said. “It’s just a mess.”

Asked by Boston.com about Laing’s experiences, Delta said in a statement it considers wheelchairs an “extension of a person and [understands] that any mishandling of this mobility device directly impacts their daily living.”

“We have affirmatively worked with the customer to make things right, and apologize for their experience,” the statement read. “We are proactively working with our Advisory Board on Disability and our cross divisional operations teams to continuously improve the travel experience for our customers with disabilities.”

Laing said she counts herself lucky because she had another chair to use while the other was out-of-commission. 

Most people don’t have a backup. 

“A lot of my friends won’t fly because they do not have another chair,” Laing said. “And they can’t afford to not have the chair. Because it’s a source of independence. It’s how we get around everywhere. To our appointments, to work, to everyday life.”

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Matt Wetherbee didn’t have an extra chair to fall back on last September. The 35-year-old Marblehead native, who now lives in Louisville, Kentucky, told Boston.com that almost every time he has flown since he suffered a spinal cord injury in 2016, something has happened with his wheelchair.

But his experience with American Airlines last year was the worst. 

First, on his way to Boston for a wedding, the knee blocker on his chair, which functions as a guard that keeps his legs in place in the front of the chair, was bent by the time he arrived. 

But on a connecting flight home via Charlotte, North Carolina, he encountered an even greater problem. First, they brought him last onto the plane, which the 35-year-old noted isn’t supposed to happen. 

“It’s kind of embarrassing because you have to get transferred into an aisle chair then pushed onto the plane in an aisle chair and then transferred again into your seat,” Wetherbee said. “So that all had to happen in front of other passengers. ” 

Then, right as the plane was getting ready to pull away from the gate, a ground crew member boarded to tell him that his wheelchair wouldn’t fit on the plane. Wetherbee said he knew that couldn’t be the case, since he’d made the same trip, on the same kind of aircraft, many times before. 

“Somebody I was traveling with basically overheard them saying that there was too much other luggage in the cargo already and they didn’t want to move it to fit my chair,” Wetherbee said.

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The airline gave him the choice to stay in Charlotte with his chair, overnight, for the next flight. But that wasn’t an option for him. He didn’t have the supplies he needed with him to stay at a hotel.

The other choice he was presented with was staying on the flight, heading home without his chair, which would be sent the next day. 

Wetherbee opted to stay on the flight, which meant that when he landed in Louisville he had to use his shower chair once he was off the plane for his journey home. 

“My shower chair is not equipped for any sort of traveling long distances,” he said. “It doesn’t have straps on it, so I wasn’t safely secured in the chair or anything like that. It’s meant for showering, and that’s pretty much it.”

Once at home, Wetherbee, who is paralyzed from the shoulders down, was forced to spend the next 20 hours in bed, waiting for his power chair to be delivered. 

Matt Wetherbee’s shower chair, which he was forced to use after his wheelchair wasn’t loaded onto his flight. – Courtesy of Matt Wetherbee

When it finally did arrive, it wouldn’t turn on and the head array was damaged. 

A local wheelchair dealer was eventually able to get it to turn on later that day, but Wetherbee said he still had a long wait for other damaged parts on the chair to get replaced. 

Asked about Wetherbee’s experience, American Airlines said in a statement that in recent years the company has “placed a particular focus on giving our team members the tools and resources they need to properly handle and track customers’ mobility aids, and we’ve seen improvement in handling as a result.”

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“We strive to provide a safe and enjoyable experience for all customers, and are deeply concerned by [the] experience Mr. Wetherbee encountered when traveling with American last year,” the statement read. “Following the incident, our team launched an investigation to better understand what occurred and reached out to apologize, offer a full refund and expedite the repair process.”

Wetherbee said he’s grateful he at least had his shower chair with him, to use as a backup. 

“If I didn’t have that, they would have had to put me in one of those manual wheelchairs they keep at the airport that I don’t fit in at all because I’m a tall guy,” he said. “I’m 6-foot-3. And you can be subject to pressure sores when you don’t have your own wheelchair that fits your body properly and has the adequate cushioning that you need.”

Which, like Laing, Wetherbee stressed can be dangerous. 

Last year, disability rights activist Engracia Figueroa developed a pressure sore after her custom wheelchair was broken during a July flight, forcing her to use a wheelchair that lacked the support she needed in the months while she waited for her replacement chair. The sore reportedly developed into an infection that spread to her hip bone; she died in November.

“If your chair gets damaged in any way that you can’t use it, you’re kind of out of luck if you don’t have some sort of backup,” Wetherbee said. “You’re at risk for getting a pressure sore, getting injured in some way, that can lead to something worse.”

‘It’s hugely important to have your specific chair’

Matt Wetherbee with his wife, Kaitlyn. – Courtesy of Matt Wetherbee

Field, who now lives in Florida, doesn’t fly anymore because she’s afraid of having her wheelchair damaged, instead opting for long road trips when she wants to return to the Northeast. But on her social media accounts, she frequently highlights the experiences of others who have had their chairs broken or mishandled by airlines. 

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She said it’s clear that people don’t understand the impact, with some often quick to point out that the airline does reimburse the cost of the repairs. 

“It can take six months to a year to get a customized chair fixed, even if it is through insurance or the airline pays for it,” Field said. “What people don’t understand is that your independence is taken away until you get that new chair.”

With his chair, Wetherbee is able to use his cell phone, meaning he can talk, text, and do other things using bluetooth technology, such as open doors in his house, control the lights, and operate other smart devices. He controls his chair using a head array, so he can drive it, change the seating — leaning it, tilting it, and standing up — which gives him pressure relief.

All of those functions affect his quality of life, he said.

Too often, people see wheelchairs as a limit, Laing said. 

“But it’s what gives people with paralysis freedom to get around and really opens things up for us,” she said. “So it’s hugely important to have your specific chair, because as I said, it’s very customized medically to you.” 

The problem, she said, is that airlines think they’re doing the right thing fixing chairs after the fact.

Laing said that’s not a real solution; that’s a fix after a problem has been created. 

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“Chairs are hugely important,” she said. “And it really shouldn’t matter if I had one extra chair, no extra chairs, a hundred extra chairs — the point really should be that they should handle the chairs with the importance they deserve. And not break them from the beginning.”

Laing, Wetherbee, and Field were in agreement that they’d like to see more training for airline employees for how to handle wheelchairs and care for those traveling in them. Improvements should also be made to the ground wheelchairs used for transport in the airport and on the planes to make them safer and more comfortable.

But the best solution, they agreed, would be to see wheelchairs stored in the cabin, not below with the luggage. 

The Department of Transportation held a hearing in March to “listen and learn” from people who use wheelchairs about the difficulties they experience traveling by air. 

The department also recently issued the first-ever Airline Passengers with Disabilities Bill of Rights with the aim of empowering travelers to “understand and assert their rights, and help ensure that U.S. and foreign air carriers and their contractors uphold those rights,” according to the agency.

A spokesperson for the agency told Boston.com that DOT is “deeply concerned about the number of wheelchairs that are damaged and delayed during air transport.”  

“The Department is committed to issuing a rulemaking, which among other things, would make clear that airlines are required to return all wheelchairs, other mobility aids, and other assistive devices in the condition that they were received,” the statement read. “The proposed rule would also make clear that mishandling a wheelchair would subject airlines to fines. Further, the rulemaking would require airlines to provide hands-on training to their employees and contractors who physically assist passengers with mobility disabilities or handle battery powered wheelchairs or scooters.”

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As it is, Wetherbee said he dreads flying and experiences a lot of anxiety when he does.

“It’s just not a fun experience at all,” he said.

If there was an easier way to fly with less risk to his wheelchair, Wetherbee said he would do so more often. 

Laing said if there was a company that took the issue “seriously and really starts taking care of the chairs,” there would be a lot of people interested in flying with that airline.

Given her own experiences, she said she’s been thinking about how when she was first injured, she attended a support group where people were talking about their goals moving forward.

Laing said she couldn’t believe when one woman shared her life goal was to be able to go on vacation.

“I remember thinking to myself, ‘Wow, that is the bar? This is what my life is going to look like that one of my life goals is going to be to go on vacation?’” Laing recalled. “I don’t think I fully appreciated that moment until right now when I’m thinking about these chairs being broken on the airplanes and thinking about my friends who won’t fly and who are being prevented from seeing family and going on vacations and traveling in general and seeing the world. 

“It’s such a shame,” she said.

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