Illustration showing wheelchairs damaged by airlines coming out on conveyor belt, with bug eyed wheelchair user strapped into aisle chair

Major airlines lost or damaged 23 wheelchairs per day from December 2018 to February 2019, according to reports by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The numbers may not come as a surprise to many disabled travelers, but thanks to accessibility reforms included in the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018, this is the first time there has been data to confirm what is known to be an industry-wide problem. “I know from personal experience that when an airline damages a wheelchair, it is more than a simple inconvenience — it’s a complete loss of mobility and independence,” said U.S Senator Tammy Duckworth, who uses a wheelchair as the result of combat injuries in Iraq. “No air traveler should be left in the lurch, immobile on a plane.”

Duckworth helped author language in the FAA Reauthorization Act that requires air carriers to report the number of wheelchairs and scooters they lose or damage each month, and for the FAA to include those numbers in its monthly Air Travel Consumer Report. The first reports to include the data state that airlines mishandled a total of 1,975 wheelchairs and scooters between the months of December and February. Of the major carriers, American and Southwest have the highest incidence of mishandling, while Delta and United have the lowest incidence of mishandling. Of the regional air carriers, Envoy Air — a subsidiary of American Air — has the highest percentage of mishandled wheelchair and scooters.

a table showing the major American air carriers and the number of wheelchairs they mishandled in December 2018

According to John Morris of WheelchairTravel.org, “Since the data is based only on damage reported by passengers, it is important for wheelchair users to file a claim each time a mobility device is mishandled, even if the damage is minor or cosmetic.”

In the initial report, both American and Southwest failed to accurately track the total number of wheelchairs and scooters brought onto their aircraft. This negatively affected their ranking, which is based on the percentage of wheelchairs and scooters mishandled. In the most recent report, Southwest fixed the tracking issue, while American did not. “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,” the report stated.

The numbers are likely to change as more monthly reports are issued and there’s a larger sample size to analyze, but wheelchair users now have some valuable information when choosing which airline to fly.