Wheelchair Users Play ‘Roulette’ In Trusting Airlines With Their Equipment

CHICAGO (CBS) — For most people, air travel spells adventure. But if you’re traveling with a wheelchair, it can also spell trouble.

CBS 2’s Roseanne Tellez says damage to wheelchairs is so frequent that some disabled flyers are calling it “wheelchair roulette.”

Kevin Sorci was returning from a 40th birthday trip to Las Vegas when his custom wheelchair was damaged by American Airlines. Although the airline provided him a loaner chair, “You realize how helpless you are,” Sorci said.

His very specialized chair took three months to repair. American paid for repairs. But after some research, Kevin learned this is fairly common problem.

Department of Transportation records show 341 wheelchairs were damaged by airlines in 2009 and 644 in 2008. 

“This chair has unfortunately become a part of me,” Sorci said. “I have to depend on my chair as if they were legs.”

Like manual wheelchairs, Sorci’s cost about $6,000. But some of the power chairs go for up to $50,000.

They offer mobility to people with all kinds of disabilities. But when they’re damaged by airlines, they can’t be easily replaced.

“Somebody really needs to enlighten them,” says Rick Green of Rehab Tech in Lombard.

His business has been repairing wheelchairs for 41 years. Green says airline workers need a crash course on how to properly stow the high-tech equipment.

“It would save them a lot of money on their end, as far as the airlines,” he said.

American Airlines says wheelchair damage is very rare.

Tellez says her son’s power wheelchair has been damaged several times over the last few years. The airlines were quick to provide loaners and pay for repairs, she reports.

But the issue really is finding a better way to stow the critical equipment so it doesn’t break in the first place and put lives on hold while people wait for repairs.

  • Lynn Urlaub

    THIS IS WHY WE DON’T FLY!!! The airlines will pay for the damage, but what can we do when the chair is broke AT THE AIRPORT and the disabled person is stuck waiting for a loaner – IF THEY CAN FIND ONE?? This is totally unacceptable!

  • JeanSC

    I think wheelchairs need to be stowed in specially made containers with proper padding and impact protection for the flight. These containers should be designed to hold the variety of wheelchairs used by airline passengers. I think people in the wheelchair business should invent such containers.

  • Arjay

    Why should the airlines be exempt from laws regarding the American disabilities act? Or are they? If they are not, then there needs to be more accountability to and better protection for travelers with any form of disability.

  • Jane

    The shame is that there are containers available to ship mobility equipment, however, most airlines do not have them. I think it is a matter of dollars and cents – the executives of the airlines to not think the situation is severe enough to spend the money to insure that wheelchairs are safely stowed. They do not really understand what a wheelchair is to a disabled individual. It is not like a damanged stroller which can be replaced at your local discount store in the morning!

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