Illustration by Doug Davis

Illustration by Doug Davis

Two Broken Chairs, One Mission

I wasn’t looking for a platform. The platform came looking for me. When I was booking my first post-injury flight in the spring of 2016, a cross-country trip from Seattle to the East Coast for United Spinal’s Roll on Capitol Hill, I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

The dream vacation I spent months planning and thousands of dollars on in travel and lodging for my girlfriend, two caregivers, and me turned into every wheelchair traveler’s worst nightmare when United Airlines damaged my head-controlled Invacare TDX so badly that I wound up spending 11 of the 14 days without it at all.

One broken chair would be bad luck. Two broken in one year is a pattern, says Kenny Salvini.

One broken chair would be bad luck. Two broken in one year is a pattern, says Kenny Salvini.

Not even one calendar year later, Alaska Airlines caused $16,000 in damage to another wheelchair on my way back from ROCH 2017. Once is a case of bad luck. Twice is the universe revealing your path. Having two wheelchairs destroyed by two different airlines in the span of a year has a way of thrusting you into a bit of reluctant advocacy with a lot of questions that need answers.

How is it that in the year 2017, in the age of one-day Amazon Prime delivery of damn near anything you desire, a full 27 years since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, that airplanes in America are not wheelchair accessible? Why is it so hard to transport wheelchairs safely? What kind of recourse does someone like me have to hold the airlines accountable when they break what are essentially my legs? What is being done to address what seems to be a systemic issue within the industry?

To answer those questions, I tried to finagle my way behind the curtain of the airline industry, chat with wheelchair travelers with far more expertise than my own, and take a look back more than three decades to see where this pattern of negligence began and what, if anything, is being done to address it.

ADA vs. ACAA: How Airplanes Fell Through the Cracks

Most people recognize the Americans with Disabilities Act as the seminal piece of American civil rights legislation governing the accessibility standards of most buildings and modes of transportation. But few seem to be aware that the Air Carrier Access Act of 1986 predates the ADA by four years. Aiming to ensure that people with disabilities be treated without discrimination in a way consistent with the safe carriage of all passengers, the bill established regulations requiring airlines to provide proper assistance at airports and on board flights, safe transport and timely return of personal wheelchairs and mobility equipment, as well as minor accessibility features of aircraft and some airport facilities. Part of the reason the ADA didn’t address air travel was the belief that the ACAA had already addressed it.

The language within each bill seems to point at equal access for their respective jurisdictions, but the subtle differences between the two laws are where you will find major discrepancies in relation to our basic civil rights and how they are enforced. Whereas the ADA is governed by the Department of Justice, the ACAA is beholden to the Department of Transportation. One glaring omission in the ACAA is the lack of direct recourse for individuals whose rights are violated.

While the ACAA was written with an implied private right of action — the ability to sue an airline if the rights contained in the bill were violated — a Supreme Court ruling in 2001 held that such a right cannot be implied unless a statute has explicit indication that Congress intended to bestow it in the first place. In layman’s terms, it rendered the bill toothless, only giving those of us whose rights were trampled on the ability to file an administrative complaint with the DOT — a process that isn’t straightforward, and has a disturbingly low rate of enforcement.

The Accountability Vacuum

Under the ACAA, the secretary of transportation is only required to review the number of disability complaints all airlines receive (32,445 in 2016, half of which were wheelchair-related issues, according to Air Travel Consumer Reports), but the DOT itself only acts on incidents reported directly to its Office of Aviation Enforcement and Proceedings (merely 723 in 2016). Amazingly, over the last decade, the DOT has levied only a dozen fines to the top five domestic airlines, leaving the impression that our government treats them with kid gloves, to put it mildly.

Take the $2 million fine against United Airlines in January 2016 as an example. While that number looks substantial, the consent order from the DOT orders them to pay only $700,000 in monetary fines. The remainder was “credited” back to United, half of which was written off for flight vouchers dispensed in compensation to wronged passengers, while the other half was reinvested in a mobile app and other efforts to track mobility devices in their system.

That soft treatment continues, as evidenced by the postponement of a 2016 rule published in the final months of the Obama administration that would have required airlines to track and report how many wheelchairs and motorized scooters they carried and how many were broken or mishandled every month. Set to be implemented January 1, 2018, the DOT bowed to pressure from airline lobbyists and delayed the new rule by another year with no input from the public.

Thankfully, Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) has stepped in to champion the cause by introducing the Air Carrier Access Amendments Act (S.1318). The measure would help create a Passengers with Disabilities Bill of Rights along with a federal advisory committee on the Air Travel Needs of Passengers with Disabilities. Most importantly, the senator’s bill would increase penalties for damaged wheelchairs, and allow travelers to pursue legal action in the event their chairs get damaged.

The absence of the ability to properly hold the industry accountable for its numerous violations is a big part of why we can flash forward 30 years since the ACAA was originally put in place and see that planes are the only mode of public transportation that do not have designated spaces for wheelchairs like buses, light rails, trains, and ferries have had for years. Without such a space, the prospect of air travel can seem exceedingly difficult and sometimes, downright scary for travelers who rely on chairs of all kinds.

Fear and Loathing at 30,000 Feet

The mere specter of a broken wheelchair at the end of a long flight is enough to keep many from attempting a flight at all. In a recent United Spinal poll of 180 wheelchair users with air travel experience, taken between August and October of this year, more than half (53 percent) of respondents said they have chosen not to fly for fear that their wheelchair might be broken in some fashion that could affect their trip.

John Morris tries not to worry about the shape his wheelchair may be in at his destination.

John Morris tries not to worry about the shape his wheelchair may be in at his destination.

“What I find most frustrating is that the system has created an environment where people with disabilities are afraid to fly,” says John Morris, a triple amputee from a car accident in 2012, and the driving force behind the informative blog The 28-year-old is a self-described miles addict and staunch critic of the air travel industry. He has amassed more than 500 flights and nearly 750,000 miles in a power chair over the last five years. And while he has only had a single instance where his chair was returned completely undrivable, the all too real possibility of catastrophic damage still rents space in his head with every takeoff.

“That’s in the back of my mind the entire flight,” says Cory Lee, world traveler and namesake of the insightful and entertaining travel blog “Curb Free With Cory Lee.” The 27-year-old living with Spinal Muscular Atrophy has well over 100 flights on six continents as a power chair user. “I’m still very fearful of air travel. I took my first flight with a power chair at 13, and I get insanely nervous even to this day, and not about flying … it’s more about, will my wheelchair make it? Will it arrive safely? Will it get damaged?”

Issues Big and Small

Morris is quick to preface the difference between significant damage and minor types of damage. “I don’t want to scare people into thinking that every time they fly, they will be faced with a destroyed wheelchair at their destination,” he says. Though Morris has only had that single instance of catastrophic damage, he admits the little ones can add up to larger inconveniences really quick. Even something as simple as a plastic release lever to remove an armrest could drastically affect a wheelchair user’s independence if it happens to be on the only side of the chair from which they can functionally transfer in and out of bed.

In the United Spinal survey, 49 percent of those who had flown domestically in the last five years said their chairs had been damaged by at least one airline. Of those who have had issues, 32 percent reported their chairs had been damaged three or more times, with one in eight reporting more than five issues.

Contacts within the industry are reluctant to divulge the details of total damages from year to year, but Morris says Delta Airlines reported a 3 percent rate of wheelchairs damaged when it invited him to a consumer advisory board meeting in 2014. According to Consumer Reports, Delta had 98 complaints of wheelchairs damaged that year. But he says those numbers could easily be skewed by travelers not noticing smaller damages or simply lacking the desire to report them.

“At this point, it’s hard to keep track,” Morris says of the number of times his rights under the ACAA have been infringed upon. Even with his relative good luck with equipment damages, he says denial of preboarding, failure to provide safety briefings, and long delays returning his wheelchair are easily the top three rights that are violated. In 2017 alone, he has filed 10 complaints against carriers for a myriad of issues.

There’s also the issue of people not knowing they can report issues at all. Seventy percent of respondents to the United Spinal survey said they didn’t even know they had rights under the ACAA. Not that airlines went out of their way to convey those rights, either. Ninety-two percent of respondents said the airlines did not share any information about their rights with them.

(Mis)Handling the Problem

When damage does occur, it’s mainly during the loading and unloading process which, at best, points to a lack of empathy and understanding of how to handle our equipment. At worst, it’s blatant disrespect for what is essentially our legs. After a long flight home from a tournament in 2008, Jeremy Hannaford and his teammates on the Seattle Slam quad rugby team were horrified to look out their cabin windows to see Delta baggage handlers throwing their day chairs onto the concrete. “Of course they couldn’t hear us beating on the windows from the inside. One of the flight attendants finally said something to them and they stopped.”

Morris says there’s a bad apple in every bunch, but the majority of damages are accidental. “I think the damage is a result of ignorance and lack of understanding about how to deal with mobility equipment. With a 400-pound wheelchair, you don’t lift it by the armrest.” Click over to his website, and you can watch a YouTube video compilation of baggage handlers from all over the world struggling to wrestle his awkward chair from the tarmac onto the conveyor belt that loads the luggage. Once on the conveyor, the belt is too narrow to carry most power chairs, so handlers often have to break safety protocol and climb up the belt while assisting the chair.

The next, and most cumbersome obstacle — for power chairs especially — is the cargo door height of narrow-body planes like the Boeing 737, one of the most commonly used aircraft for domestic flights. Airline websites say the door height is somewhere in the 36-inch range, but Morris says that can vary depending on the angle of the conveyor. Many power wheelchairs are too tall to fit through the door upright, so handlers have to tip the chairs on their sides, which can cause damage.

Weeks or Months Without Crucial Equipment

The customization that goes into our chairs means that durable medical equipment providers don’t have spares just lying around. Depending on the complexity of your system, the turnaround times for repairs can stretch from hours to weeks, and even months. According to United Spinal’s poll, 36 percent of respondents who had their wheelchair damaged were left without one for a substantial period of time, and 50 percent of those had to wait at least a month or more.

During my 2016 debacle with United Airlines, the best its New Jersey-based DME contractor could do for me was give me an ill-fitting, hand-controlled loaner while they scrambled to diagnose and fix mine. I spent five days of my first visit to the Big Apple with a gait belt wrapped around my chest and my arms awkwardly propped on pillows while my caregivers and girlfriend tag-teamed joystick duties in and out of narrow entryways and elevator doors.

A week later when my chair still wasn’t fixed, I had to swap out to a manual chair for another six days through Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. It was equal parts uncomfortable, demoralizing and humiliating.

It wound up taking six months for United to fix my wheelchair. If it weren’t for the dumb luck that my insurance had already ordered a new replacement chair at the same time, I could have been stuck in that manual chair, or even in bed, while I waited.

Gina Schuh, a C5-6 quad and founder of Accessible Arizona, found herself in the same position when the Twion Power Assist wheels for her manual wheelchair were broken by American Airlines on her flight home from this summer’s ROCH. Those power assist wheels are not for convenience — they are crucial to her daily life. “I don’t have the strength to push myself up the ramp of my car,” says Schuh, referring to her adapted Honda Element.

Even though she has a backup manual chair with a set of e-motion wheels (broken and replaced by United Airlines on a previous trip), it’s not compatible with her vehicle’s lock-in system, so the only feasible way for her to leave the house was to be in a regular manual chair and pay someone to push her around. She often had no choice but to stay home for most of the month it took for her equipment to be repaired. “It was just so irritating, because there was nothing I could do,” she says.

Customer Service Fails

Cory Lee, whose short book Air Travel For Wheelchair Users is available on Amazon, says the trouble can start weeks before he even arrives at the airport. In his book, Lee emphasizes the importance of establishing contact with your air carrier well in advance of your flight, but the effectiveness of that forethought often depends on who you end up talking to.

Airline staff try to temporarily fix Cory Lee’s armrest upon arrival in Amsterdam.

Airline staff try to temporarily fix Cory Lee’s armrest upon arrival in Amsterdam.

In a conversation with one Delta customer service rep in preparation for an upcoming trip, Lee’s requests for extra accommodations were completely blown off with audible sighs from the person on the other end of the line, who wasn’t interested in putting in the extra work on his behalf. The Georgia native frequently flies out of Delta’s Atlanta hub and has reached out multiple times to offer to help train staff at the airport, but to no avail. “They’re completely unwilling to listen to anything,” he says.

Service on the back end can be equally as frustrating, especially when your wheelchair gets damaged. I had to do all the coordination between my local DME provider and United Airlines’ New Jersey affiliate, and rarely heard a thing from airline officials until it was all finished. Even though I told the complaint resolution officer I didn’t want them and wouldn’t use them, I got a handful of flight vouchers in an automated response with a canned apology and release of liability statement. It took a full year for United Airlines to send anything resembling a formal apology, which came following my registration of another DOT complaint, against Alaska, this summer.

Behind the Curtain with Alaska

To its credit, Alaska Airlines responded in a way most in the industry seldom do, and light years ahead of how United handled my prior situation. I posted one picture on Instagram the night my chair was damaged and woke up to six voicemails the following morning; four from random executives who were contacted by mutual friends, one from the airline’s social media director, and another from the manager of central baggage who left her personal cell number.

Within a couple weeks, I was invited to a roundtable discussion at Alaska Airlines headquarters in SeaTac, Washington, put together by Ray Prentice, the airline’s director of customer advocacy, who saw my situation as a teachable moment for the organization. There were nearly 30 managers from all corners of the organization present, from baggage contractors, transfer teams, web designers, flight control, airport representatives, you name it. “We are all about building relationships with experts to help teach us, and help us become better,” says Prentice.

Alaska Airlines took the damage to Salvini’s chair seriously, inviting him to a roundtable discussion.

Alaska Airlines took the damage to Salvini’s chair seriously, inviting him to a roundtable discussion.

The opportunity to get behind the curtain with one of the industry’s main players was a real eye-opener because it showed a business that seemed to take the disabled community’s travel hurdles to heart more than I had expected. I got to hear about the airline’s well-developed systems to aid blind and autistic passengers, as well as the steps it was taking to help decrease the amount of damage to mobility devices. Discussions ranged from educating passengers on better ways to communicate their wheelchairs’ specific needs through printable placards, to better internal tracking of outgoing and incoming wheelchairs.

In October, I was invited to one of its baggage handling training sessions focused on better strategies for handling wheelchairs. Prentice says the hope is that by offering them personal perspectives, there will be a better incentive to handle equipment with care. “That was one round. We need to continually engage baggage handlers in various ways so that they understand the importance of these devices.”

While the issue of stowing our equipment under the plane is a crucial component in making it easier for the wheelchair to get from point A to point B, it’s only part of what makes air travel problematic for wheelchair users.

In-Cabin Real Dangers

As a wheelchair user, just getting to your designated seat is an arduous task, thanks to multiple awkward transfers in and out of a rickety aisle chair. There are countless reports of aisle chair injuries in the United Spinal survey ranging from severe bruising caused by hitting armrests as passengers are hastily guided down the aisle, to far more serious issues like broken bones from falling out of the minimally-sized, unstable aisle chair.

“Half of my body is skin grafted,” says Morris. “In some areas it’s 1 millimeter of skin covering the bone, so I have to be very aware of how I am being moved around.” For those with compromised skin, a minor breakdown can take weeks to heal, leaving behind scar tissue that is even more vulnerable. “Me and the aisle chair don’t really get along too well, but I deal with it,” he says.

Most travelers share that sentiment, but there are alternative ways to board planes that are readily available but not being used. Take the Eagle 2 and 3 aviation lifters from Australian hoist manufacturer Haycomp, for example. The modular, Hoyer-type lifts are made to fit down the narrow aisle of the plane and can take you from your wheelchair to your airplane seat without multiple lifts up and down from the aisle chair. “I’ve never seen one in person, but I’m dying to try it,” says Lee.

There are other products in the market that can help mitigate some of the transfer issues, like the Comfort Carrier from Broadened Horizons, which consists of a vinyl sling with multiple heavy-duty handles sewn strategically in place for people to grab. Lee prefers the versatility he’s found in Transfer Pants, which have similar handles sewn directly into the garments themselves. “They have really been a lifesaver for me.”

If you make it through the aisle chair transfers unscathed, sitting on an airline cushion for multiple hours can cause serious problems as well. As someone who has lost four years of my post-injury life to bed rest to heal pressure sores, I take my skin integrity seriously. I have to be in a very specific position on my Ride Designs cushion, so it can’t be used on the airline seat during the flight. Using a semi-deflated ROHO cushion as a buffer, combined with multiple position changes, didn’t prevent me from incurring considerable breakdown. My first stop after the United Airlines flight in 2016 was the Rutgers University Hospital to address some significant shearing.

In-cabin issues further highlight that our wheelchairs are not just how we get around; we rely on the custom seating systems for our health and well-being. For those of us who rely on custom DME, it would be much safer if we could take our chairs inside the plane instead of putting our bodies at risk. [See All Wheels Up below.]

Making Cents vs. Making Sense

When pressed about the prospect of getting chairs on planes, Prentice falls back on the airline lobby’s standard arguments. “Are you talking about removing seats from first class? What about the narrowness of the aisles? How would you get back to coach? Which wheelchairs will be cleared and which won’t?” While some questions are valid, it points to an industry still digging in its heels in resistance to change.

Yes, there are quite a few logistical hurdles that would need to be ironed out, but they’ve managed to crash test vans and buses with similar restraints. Plane interiors are rearranged and retrofitted all the time to further pad the airlines bottom lines. In his blog, Morris points to the phenomenon of constantly shrinking seat pitch (the space between seats), where passengers have lost nearly 6 inches of leg room as airlines pack more passengers on each flight. If adding seats is doable, creating a couple of removable seats shouldn’t be a problem, either. They can store them in the belly of the plane instead of our wheelchairs.

Ian Mackay is separated from his wheelchair in preparation for his flight.

Ian Mackay is separated from his wheelchair in
preparation for his flight.

Making airplanes wheelchair accessible is not impossible, despite what officials might tell you. In fact, it has already been done — almost 75 years ago. In her presentations advocating for the crash testing of wheelchairs in the cabins of planes, All Wheels Up founder Michele Erwin often uses a photo of the Douglas VC-54C “Sacred Cow,” the very first Air Force One built for Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1942, which had an elevator and aisles wide enough for his wheelchair. “I don’t think today’s engineers are any less intelligent or empathetic to the wheelchair community,” says Erwin, “and if given the opportunity to build an accessible airplane, they would.”

Maybe they would, and maybe not. The unfortunate reality is the airlines’ decisions often come down to a matter of dollars and cents. Like any other massive industry, economics will always supersede the moral imperative. It doesn’t make the airlines or any of their employees villains, per se, it’s just the way business works. As long as it is cheaper for airlines to just fix the chairs they break and pay the occasional fines than it would be to embrace accessibility, there is little incentive to change.

Thankfully, the numbers are slowly starting to skew in our favor, says Erwin, because a lot more of us are starting to fly. The landscape of the disability community has shifted considerably since the ACAA was initially passed. “1986 doesn’t feel like all that long ago, but things have changed enough that the community can travel more,” she says. The data seems to say the same thing.

In 2015, the disabled community spent $17.3 billion on travel, according to a market study by Open Doors Organization. That’s nearly a 30 percent increase from the $13.6 billion spent in 2005. Factor in the ever-increasing number of baby boomers heading toward retirement, and it makes business sense for airlines to expand the scope of services available to travelers with disabilities.

From her perspective, Erwin sees the untapped potential in an underserved community as a potential arms race for the first airline to become truly accessible. “The disability community is a tightknit group and is fiercely loyal to those who serve them well,” she says. It is a reason for hope down the road, but it still means we will have to deal with the status quo for the foreseeable future.

It’s the System, Not the People

It’s been a full three decades since our government enacted legislation to protect the disabled community from discrimination by the airline industry, yet those of us who rely on wheelchairs are still being treated like second-rate citizens when it comes to equal access on flights. The lack of proper accountability over the last 30 years has allowed the industry to get away with violating our civil rights and creating a culture of fear around what is a relatively carefree mode of travel for everyone else.

It’s hard not to take something like that personally, and the inclination is to lash out at the nearest baggage handler or any other airline official. Morris hates being put in situations where he has to hold his tongue, but that is often the case. Because the airline representative standing in front of him is most likely a good person, and would not have done this to him on their own. “The real problem exists in upper management, where executive boards have just decided that it is more cost-effective to violate our rights than it is to uphold them. And that is just a sad thing.”

One of the more frustrating things in this whole situation seems to be the relative silence I’ve heard from the rest of the airlines. I’ve reached out repeatedly to the rest of the big five via email and telephone for comments, and was simply directed to their websites’ respective disability policies. You can’t help but feel like our accessible travel needs will be addressed only in accordance to the next viral video or news story.

It all points to an industry that is too big for accountability, and it knows it. This really shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. Just look at United Airlines’ now infamous incident from April of this year, where physician David Dow had his nose broken and two teeth knocked out when he was forcefully removed from the seat he rightfully paid for. The public at large was outraged, but wheelchair users weren’t surprised at all. Too many of us know what it feels like to be dragged down that aisle and have figurative or even actual bones broken.

A month later, the DOT announced it would not issue any sanctions against the airline because it reached an out-of-court settlement with Dow rumored to be in the tens of millions of dollars. Morris points out the major difference between Dow’s situation and those of us in wheelchairs rather succinctly. “His civil rights were violated so he could sue the airlines because he doesn’t have a disability, and that is the real problem here,” he says.

All of which highlights the importance of Baldwin’s Air Carrier Access Amendments Act and continued advocacy. Without the proper mechanisms in place to keep the airline industry accountable, we will continue to be treated as second-rate citizens.

I wasn’t looking for a platform a year and a half ago, but my glimpse behind the curtain of the airline industry has reinforced the importance of this conversation between wheelchair travelers, our elected officials, and every airline in every airport across the country. It must continue. As we’ve seen the disability community’s powerful contribution to the healthcare debate last summer, this community is a force to be reckoned with when we are justifiably motivated. This is another situation where it is time for our collective voice to be heard.

Finding solutions to keep wheelchairs safe from damage during air travel is one of United Spinal’s premier priorities. As a member of the Rehabilitation and Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America’s Assistive Technology for Air Travel Committee, which held its inaugural meeting in November, United Spinal joined RESNA and other disability organizations, airlines, wheelchair manufacturers, federal agencies and engineers. Together we are writing new standards for wheelchair labeling, design, handling and personnel training to safely transport wheelchairs through the onboarding and offboarding process. For more information go to

All Wheels Up — Getting Our Wheels Where They Belong

Successful crash testing has opened the door to a future in which travelers could remain in their own chairs on airplanes.

Successful crash testing has opened the door to a future in which travelers could remain in their own chairs on airplanes.

Michele Erwin stumbled into a platform of her own around 2010, when she and her husband tried to arrange a trip to Disneyland with their then-3-year-old son, Greyson, who has SMA. Despite Greyson’s small stature, the Erwins quickly discovered how cumbersome and downright dangerous air travel could be. “And this was with a child. I realized traveling with him was only going to get more challenging,” says Erwin.

Thinking flying with her son would be easier if he could remain in his own wheelchair, Erwin sought to find out what kind of solutions toward that end were in the works. She was shocked to discover there had been no research done whatsoever. So she embarked on a journey to get wheelchairs crash-tested for commercial flights. She began by getting in touch with Q’Straint, the leading wheelchair restraint manufacturer used in most vans and buses. Q’Straint had recently published results showing their tiedowns held up to tests of up to 20 G-force, well above the 16 G-force requirement of airplane seat standards. The numbers made sense. Getting anyone to listen was another story.

Repeated hangups from industry officials, failed grant applications, and losing the family home in Hurricane Sandy threatened to derail Erwin’s passion project, but she stayed the course, establishing All Wheels Up, a nonprofit focused on getting wheelchairs inside planes once and for all. “A lot of the airlines’ answers were ‘no,’ just for the sake of being no, and not for the right reasons,” she says. Teaming with other air travel advocates around the globe, and tireless grassroots organizing, helped AWU raise enough capital to fund the first crash test in Buffalo, New York.

In late September of this year, All Wheels Up got the chance to unveil its proof of concept for the first time at the inaugural Wheelchair in the Cabin Symposium, hosted by Flying Disabled at Virgin Atlantic Airways’ headquarters in Britain. With companies from all over the globe in attendance, Erwin made a compelling presentation of what the future of disabled air travel could look like. Showing a wheelchair being tested with Q’Straint tie-downs at an FAA crash test facility was enough to turn more than a few heads.

By focusing on logistics rather than rights, Erwin has learned to speak the language of the industry and found creative arguments that get the airlines’ attention. Case in point: tarmac turn times. She made the case that it is much easier to load and tie down a wheelchair inside the cabin itself than break it down underneath the plane, and it would increase the turnaround of each aircraft, which speaks volumes in the minds of industry heads looking to save time and money any way possible.

While it’s encouraging that progress is being made, Erwin is quick to point out that changes like these move at a glacial pace. “It took 14 years for the buses to become fully accessible, so we still have a long way to go. Boeing just signed a 10-year contract for their latest production line a year or two ago. Once production begins, the design is set, and no changes can be made. So I’ve got eight years to get it approved and work with designers.”

The biggest hurdle in front of AWU is getting the proper funding to do further crash tests. Erwin is looking at FAA reauthorization bills currently going through the House and Senate. Like the Air Carrier Access Amendments Act, the FAA bills require the study of in-cabin restraint systems for wheelchairs, but Erwin prefers the latter because there are actual purse strings attached in the FAA budget itself that could be put to use right away on subsequent crash tests.

By keeping an in-depth perspective and aligning all the right people, Erwin and All Wheels Up have established themselves as experts in a field that didn’t exist seven years ago. Though the timeline is long and there is still a lot of work ahead, she remains optimistic. “You can see this wave and there is so much happening all of a sudden.”

Policy Talk: Bills We Need Passed

Contact your U.S. senators and ask them to support the Air Carrier Access Amendments Act of 2017 (S. 1318). This bill would increase penalties for damaged wheelchairs, ensure higher standards for accessibility, and create a Passengers with Disabilities Bill of Rights. To take action on the Air Carrier Access Amendments Act, please visit United Spinal’s Advocacy Action Center at

Other bills to watch that United Spinal has played a hand in drafting and editing are the House and Senate Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization bills HR 2997 and S. 1405. Both apply funding to continued operations of the FAA and include favorable provisions for the disability community, which include providing a study to Congress on airport accessibility best practices for passengers with disabilities, as well as the establishment of an advisory committee on the air travel needs of passengers with disabilities. As of October, there was a short six-month funding agreement of the FAA, signed by the president, that will expire in March. United Spinal continues to work hard on air travel issues for travelers with disabilities with many other advocacy groups.


Air Travel Rights:
• Accessible Air Travel — A Guide for People with Disabilities:
• U.S. Department of Transportation Air Travel Complaint Form:

Advocacy Organizations:
• All Wheels Up:
• Open Doors Organization:
• United Spinal Association:

Travel Blogs:
• Curb Free With Cory Lee:
• Wheelchair Travel:

• Comfort Carrier:
•Transfer Pants: