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Friday, March 15, 2019

Wheelchairs and Mobility Devices Destroyed or Damaged by Airlines

Over a year ago the major airlines in the United States were made aware that for the first time they would be required by law to report the number of wheelchairs and scooters they destroyed or damaged. Prior to December 4, 2018 a wheelchair or scooter was classified as luggage. No data on on how many wheelchairs and scooters destroyed or damaged by airlines had ever been compiled. As anyone who uses a wheelchair knows, horror stories abound about the large number of wheelchairs destroyed by airlines. Thanks to the FAA Reauthorization Act American based carriers are now required to record the number of wheelchairs and scooters it breaks per month. Link:

The first monthly report has been issued and it is an eye opener. Link: If one navigates to page 37 you will find the below chart:


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If you look closely there three asterisks. Those asterisks state: 

* All U.S. airlines with at least one percent of total domestic scheduled-service passenger revenues, as determined by DOT's Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
**Southwest informed the Department that for December 2018, it reported mishandlings of all power-assisted and manual wheelchairs and scooters; however, Southwest stated that its enplaned wheelchairs and scooters number did not include any manual wheelchairs enplaned by the carrier. Southwest has disclosed to the Department that it will have the ability to reliably capture manual wheelchairs enplaned on or after January 15, 2019, in its enplaned wheelchairs and scooters number submitted to the Department.
***American informed the Department that for December 2018, it reported mishandlings of all power-assisted and manual wheelchairs and scooters; however, American stated that its process for determining the enplanement number of wheelchairs and scooters may not have consistently accounted for all wheelchairs and scooters enplaned. American has also stated that this process may have impacted American’s wholly- owned subsidiary Envoy and American’s other branded code share carriers ExpressJet and SkyWest. American has indicated to the Department that it is enhancing its process to reliably capture all reportable enplaned wheelchairs and scooters, which may take a few months.

Between December 4, 2018 and December 31, 2018 701 wheelchairs and scooters were mishandled. Yes, the top twelve airlines on average break 25 wheelchairs and scooters a day. I love the wording-mishandled. How benign a word for stating airlines have irreparably damaged the life of a person with a disability. I hope the airline industry notes the total number of passengers that fly per month using wheelchairs or scooters: 32,229. A little basic math would indicate 386,748 people who use a wheelchair or scooter fly in a calendar year. This number is somewhat misleading--it only includes people who have their wheelchair or scooter put in a plane's cargo. I would suggest hundreds of thousands of others who use mobility devices also travel--those using a myriad of mobility devices such as canes, crutches, walkers, etc. No statistics for those that store mobility devices in the airplane cabin are recorded. No information about how long it takes for a passenger whose wheelchair or scooter is placed in the cargo hold is recorded. Most importantly, American Airlines and Southwest Airlines failed to track the number of wheelchairs and scooters it transported. See asterisks above. Despite having a year to institute tracking methodology American and Southwest failed to do so. 

On the surface the number of broken wheelchairs and scooters seems minimal. Of 32,229 wheelchairs and scooters handled by the airlines 701, or 2.8% were destroyed or damaged. The worst airlines were American Airlines, its subsidiary, Envoy Air, Southwest, and Delta (worst here meaning the number of wheelchairs or scooters destroyed or broken). Surprising to me, United Airlines, the airline that destroyed my wheelchair, reported breaking 80 wheelchairs and scooters. I wonder what the airline industry thinks of these preliminary numbers. I suspect they will consider these numbers a positive. The naive may think so too. I think the numbers are appalling and misleading. A mere two percent chance exists that my wheelchair will be destroyed or damaged. Surely that is a risk most people are willing to take. At issue here is choice. Every time I fly I take chances others do not. I risk my wheelchair being destroyed or damaged. I risk my body being injured during the transfer into and out of an aisle wheelchair. I risk injury when improperly secured in the aisle wheelchair by the sub contractor hired by the airline to perform this task. I lose oodles of time every time getting on and off a plane. First on, last off adds at least an hour to my travel day and that is if everything goes right. None of this mentions that single row airplanes have no accessible bathroom. In other words while others know to be well hydrated when they fly I do the exact opposite--I severely dehydrate myself because I know I cannot access a toilet. Imagine the reaction if passengers at JFK were told they could not use the restroom until they landed in Seattle. 

The records that airlines are now required to maintain are game changing for every person that uses a wheelchair or scooter. When I flew Southwest this month the paper work filled out for my wheelchair was different than a gate claim ticket. The gate agent asked what company manufactured my wheelchair and what model wheelchair was I using. He entered this information on the computer and asked me if I had upgraded any components. I informed him I had the carbon fiber frame upgrade as well as Spinergy wheels. I also provided him with the serial number of my wheelchair. The agent looked up and said "wow, I had no idea a manual wheelchair could be so expensive". This was most definitely a first in my life. 

There is no question I will be looking at these statistics on a monthly basis. I urge my crippled brethren to two the same. We cripples all know these statistics are grossly misleading. The airlines destroy and damage far more wheelchairs than they are acknowledging. Often the damage to wheelchairs is not immediately apparent. For a manual wheelchair user a bent or broken weld is not going to be noticed immediately. For a power chair or scooter user, damage to the controller may not be apparent. Further complicating the issue is that over the last few decades the bar has been set very low for airlines. Most people I know who fly are simply relieved their wheelchair has been returned in one piece. No one I know thinks of reporting cosmetic damage or minor damage like bent or twisted brakes. 

On December 4, 2018 the FAA Reauthorization Act changed life for wheelchair or scooter users. I go to the airport now with empowering information. American Airlines, Southwest, Frontier, and Delta had better clean up their act. Before booking a flight, I will examine the number of wheelchairs and scooters broken by airlines the previous months. More than price, this will dictate what airline I fly. I am far from alone. Every wheelchair user that travels has heard the horror stories about wheelchairs being destroyed, broken or lost. Videos of wheelchairs being mishandled by ground personal are readily available on You Tube. Google damaged or destroyed wheelchair and airline and images of abound of mangled wheelchairs. 

At a practical level, we wheelchair and scooter users must be proactive. If a gate agent dismisses concerns about your wheelchair being destroyed or broken provide them with statistics about the number of wheelchairs destroyed or broken the previous month. Insist the gate agent record the following information: wheelchair manufacturer, model number, serial number of the wheelchair, and upgrades on component parts. From now on I will also being taking photographs of my wheelchair moments before it is placed in the cargo hold. The Air Carrier Access Act is very clear: wheelchairs and scooter must be returned in the same condition they were received.  What I am most encouraged about is the social change the FAA Reauthorization Act will prompt. If gate agents become aware of exactly how  much wheelchairs and scooters cost it is my hope that will make an impression. The agent is no longer moving a wheelchair but is placing an item that cost many thousands if not tens of thousands of dollars. The people at the airport cannot be expected to know that buying a wheelchair these days is like buying a car. The stated price for a base model is misleading--upgrades can double or even triple the cost of a wheelchair. Gate agents have no knowledge that getting a wheelchair replaced can take many weeks and most likely months. When United destroyed my wheelchair it took three days to get an inferior loaner and nearly twelve weeks to get a new wheelchair. 

Armed with information, I wonder what will happen if my wheelchair is destroyed by an airline. The major carriers such as United hire a sub contractor to arrange a replacement wheelchair if they acknowledge it is broken beyond repair. United's subcontractor, Global Recovery Network, was impressive. They were professional and did their best to provide me with a. replacement wheelchair as soon as possible. I was not impressed with the business practices of NuMotion the durable medical equipment provider tasked with placing the order and evaluation of my needs. I had to wait weeks merely to be evaluated for a new wheelchair. I then had wait more weeks before a demonstration model wheelchairs could be examined. Once selected, it took yet more weeks to receive the wheelchair selected. It is my hope that in the event an airline destroys my wheelchair a sub contractor like Global Recovery Network can provide the manufacturer with the make, model, and upgrades made to my current wheelchair and simply replace it. Durable medical equipment companies, notorious for providing horrific customer service, can be cut out of the loop. This alone would save many weeks of time and aggravation. 

The monkey wrench in what I envision is the wheelchair user. It is far easier to cross one's fingers and hope a wheelchair is not destoryed. After all, for the naive the chances as far we know after one month of reporting is that there is a 2% chance your wheelchair or scooter will be destroyed. I sincerely doubt that most wheelchair users know the manufacturer, model and serial number of their wheelchair. I also doubt most wheelchair users will be proactive and take photographs of their wheelchair before boarding and if damaged report it immediately. The minute you leave the gate with a damaged wheelchair you are out of luck. After decades of abuse on the part of airlines, it is going to be very hard for people who use a wheelchair to assert their new rights. The last time I flew I did not think of taking photographs of my wheelchair. I only noticed a week after flying a large scratch on the foot rest. Prior to December 4, 2018 I would not have dreamed of filing a complaint over minor cosmetic damage to my wheelchair. Today, I would file a complaint immediately. The only substantive change that will take place will be driven by finances. The margin of profit in the airline industry is razor thin. In a data driven business, if the airlines note their profit margins are impacted by the cost of replacing expensive wheelchairs and scooters they will change their handling practices. That means it is incumbent upon the wheelchair and scooter user to be proactive. For the first time in my life I am hopeful that air travel will become less nerve racking and risky. 

Monday, March 11, 2019

Traveling Alone and the TSA

Despite having two wounds, last week I traveled from Denver to San Diego. In traveling, I put myself at significant risk for injury. I could have, but did not, set myself back. I have been bed bound for three months, have lost weight, and a significant amount of strength. My conditioning is abysmal. I was worried about making transfers in and out of a rental car and a hotel bed that may be too high. I was also worried about the usual problems associated with traveling. Would the airline destroy my wheelchair again? Would those charged with getting me on and off the plane injure my body? Would the rental car with hand controls be present when I arrived? Would the accessible hotel room really be accessible? When one travels as a wheelchair user much can go wrong. This was in short a high risk trip.

What was so important that I made such a trip? I have waited well over a year to be interviewed in person at a Canine Companions for Independence training facility for a service dog. In my estimation, CCI is the best national organization that provides service dogs to people with a wide array of disabilities. In three to four weeks I will learn if I passed inspection and will be put on the waiting list for a service dog.

The trip to San Diego was uneventful. By itself this is a victory. The plane left on time. My wheelchair was not destroyed or damaged. Hertz had a nice car waiting for me. The hotel room was accessible. I did not get lost driving to the hotel and I found the CCI location with ease. The return trip was not trouble free. Indeed, the trip home was nothing short of bizarre. When traveling as a wheelchair user you cannot help but be aware the way you navigate the world is atypical. The social response to your presence is equally atypical. Ridiculous and offensive comments from fellow passengers and airport employees abound. At the San Diego airport I got more comments and ridiculous questions than usual. After I got on the shuttle bus at the terminal the driver asked a total stranger sitting near me "What airline was he on and where is he going?" The woman replied "I have no idea where he is going or who he is".  The driver then looked at me and said "You should not be traveling alone". Annoyed at this point I replied "Is that a question?"  He replied "You should not be alone." Ignoring the persistent and inappropriate question I stated simply that I was going to the Hertz office.

Little did I know the question, are you traveling alone, was going to be asked repeatedly on my return trip to Denver. I was asked by every Hertz employee and bus driver if I was traveling alone. Upon arrival at the terminal I asked where the security line was located. The airline employee looked behind me and asked yet another stranger who had the misfortune of being near me "Where is he going?". Perplexed the stranger replied "I am not with him". The stranger looked at me with a bemused expression. I told her this happens all the time and she shook her head in wonder. The airport employee then asked the question I was expecting: "Are you traveling alone? quickly followed by "You really should not be alone." I ignored the question and was given directions before the employee could castigate me. At the security line I was asked by multiple airport ground employees why I was traveling alone. How did I answer this question? I politely said yes repeatedly.

When it was my turn to receive the usual pat down by the TSA I was escorted to a nearby area after a short wait. This is where things got strange. The first question asked was "why are you traveling alone?" followed by "do you usually travel alone?" It became clear within a minute or two that traveling alone had raised some sort of alarm bell. The TSA agent was polite but was looking and interacting with me in a way that indicated he meant business. He had a job to do and the pat down was going to be by the book. Aside from traveling alone, I suspect my Roho cushion alarmed the TSA. I have been using Roho cushions for over 40 years and once in a while the air nozzle will cause the TSA to inspect me, the cushion, and wheelchair in greater detail. I am sure it did not help that my Roho cushion has two air nozzles--the typical air nozzle and the smart check remote. The TSA agent patted me down with vigor--think maximum security Federal prison. My arms, chest, back, and legs were thoroughly checked. Unsatisfied with the leg pat down the TSA agent asked if I could stand or would I permit him to manipulate my legs. I told him I cannot stand and refused to allow him to manipulate my legs for personal safety reasons. What manipulation of my legs entailed I don't know. This refusal resulted in a security call and another TSA guard came over. A discussion ensued and the second guard left. I was then asked to lift my butt off my cushion so the TSA agent could get his hand under my buttocks. I could not lift myself high enough for the TSA agent. I was then asked if I was willing to get out of my wheelchair and was I willing to have my body and wheelchair X rayed. I was asked this once before and refused--again stating that I was concerned about hurting my body during a transfer. I told the agent I was willing to do anything in the wheelchair so I could pass security. This required another phone conversation and a third TSA agent who was clearly a supervisor. I was told if I cannot lift high enough off my wheelchair so the TSA agent can feel between my buttocks and wheelchair cushion I will not be able to fly. I have no idea how much time had passed at this point but these TSA agents were being deadly serious. The threat about being refused to fly is not an idle statement.

Traveling alone, having two nozzles on my cushion, and padding on the wheelchair back uprights somehow triggered the TSA. I was questioned by three TSA agents all of whom repeatedly questioned why I was traveling alone. At this point I am concerned I will be detained or refused entry to the terminal. I tell the TSA supervisor I want to cooperate and will do anything I can to pass through security. The supervisor suggests I lean over as far as humanly possible on one side of my body and cross my legs. Using a nearby metal table I do as instructed and the TSA agent forcefully feels my left buttocks and puts intense downward pressure on the Roho cushion. I attempt to do the same movement on my right side without as much success. Three TSA agents huddle and discuss the situation. My boarding pass is examined yet again, I am asked why I am traveling alone many different ways. A nearby computer is consulted. I am asked if I have traveled outside of the country in the last month. I am asked why I was in San Diego. I am asked what I do for a living, where I live, who packed my bags, if I lived alone, how did I get to the airport, what car rental company did I use, etc. A strip of material used to detect bomb making material is pressed against my hands and wheelchair. A TSA agent crawls under my wheelchair to examine the bottom and pushes me upward.

The TSA agents were exceedingly polite. I was equally polite but this was no routine pass through security. I might be completely wrong that traveling alone and having a Roho cushion with two nozzles created a serious security threat. Who knows? Maybe there was a security alert about a white middle aged male who uses a wheelchair. Common sense would indicate this is highly unlikely. I have thought long and hard about the repeated question "are you traveling alone?" Without question I was asked about traveling alone fifty times within an hour. Four TSA agents asked me. The bus driver asked. The airline employee giving directions to security asked. The gate agent asked. The flight attendant asked. The stranger who sat next to me on the plane asked. The person bringing my wheelchair to me upon landing asked. The gate agent in Denver as I deboarded asked.

Perhaps the entire trip home was a fluke. Never before have I had TSA search me so aggressively. Even the flight was unusual. Like in the movies, as we neared Denver a flight attendant asked if there was a doctor on board because of a medical emergency. An elderly gentleman had a heart attack a few rows behind me and all of a sudden a defibrillator and other medical equipment is taken out. A real medical crisis took place. Thankfully the man in question survived the flight and the flight crew could not have been more impressive. The plane itself came down fast and very hard in blizzard conditions. We taxied to the gate at high speed and were met by an army of EMTs. I was impressed. I also felt like the return home was a twilight zone like experience. A week later I am still shaking my head in wonder. Was the trip home a fluke? Yes, I think the trip was one of those fluky experiences that can happen to any traveler. But I am not any traveler. I am not a middle aged white biped that can saunter through security without any concerns. I am a vulnerable person subject to a TSA pat down every time I fly. I am lucky as well. What if I were a wheelchair user and black? What if I was Middle Eastern looking? There is no question in my mind I would have been detained or refused security clearance. What amazes me is how the ableist daggers and bigotry come out when I am alone. If I were traveling with someone else I would not have been targeted. The most hateful comments directed at me always take place when I am alone--usually when it is just me and a stranger nearby.    Ableist bigots like to be anonymous. They are sneaky when expressing their disdain for my existence. Were the TSA agents being ableist? I have no idea but I sure felt like I committed a crime for traveling alone.