What Happens When The Airline Breaks Your Wheelchair

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Graphic credit Sam Woolley/Gawker
Graphic credit Sam Woolley/Gawker

Airlines lose and damage luggage all the time. But what if that luggage was your only way to get around? What if instead of misplacing a bag, the airline removed your ability to move about independently? That’s exactly what one airline did to my wife on a trip to Mexico two years ago.

My wife was paralyzed in a car accident 14 years ago. Despite this, she is an avid traveler and together we’ve enjoyed many vacations across the globe. Of course, being a disabled traveler requires a little more work and research.

It also requires your wheelchair arriving in one piece.

When You Watch Your Airline Break You Wheelchair

On Christmas Eve of 2014, we boarded an Air Canada flight from Philadelphia to Cancun with a brief stop in Toronto. The airport was business as usual. We got the usual questions on whether or not my wife could walk or stand, and if we needed the aisle chair to get her into her seat. We confirmed we needed the aisle chair and they assured us it would be waiting at the gate.


We checked two pieces of luggage, one of which contained medical equipment including a collapsible shower bench and extra wheelchair batteries. Of course when the second bag was weighed we got the usual “This is overweight, we are going to have to charge you more for that.” I had to explain for the millionth time that the bag contains medical equipment and the airline is not allowed to charge extra for that. Airlines know these are the rules, but they ask anyway.

After getting all that sorted out, our boarding went mostly smoothly. About an hour and a half later we arrived in Toronto. Due to the extra time needed to transfer from the aisle chair to the seat, we were the first to board but the last to get off. This was no big deal, as it gave us time to organize our things and exit the plane without the crowds rushing us.


As I re-packed my carry-on, I looked out the window and saw a baggage attendant carry my wife’s wheelchair up the stairs to the jetway. He put the chair down, opened the door, then attempted to push the chair through a door that was way too small for it to fit. He then tried to lift the chair up and push it through the same door.

At this point you’d think the best solution would be to take the chair back down the stairs and up the elevator into the boarding area, then wheel it down the jetway. But this man was determined, or just lazy.


On a third attempt, he lifted the chair and turned it on its side, then pushed with even more force, as if the metal framed chair and the metal framed door would magically alter their shapes. The magic didn’t happen. I watched him violently slam the chair into the door frame some more.


I went out to assist him, and as I turned the corner I found him making a fourth attempt. Instead I removed the wheels from the chair so that I could fit it through the door. I got the chair inside, reassembled it and then helped the airline attendant transfer my wife from the aisle chair to the wheelchair.

I should mention here that my wife’s wheelchair is not your standard push-chair. Due to her level of injury and risk of overuse to her shoulder joints, she was recommended to use a full power chair or a power assist. She still wanted to stay active, so the full power chair was out (it is also nearly impossible to travel with these due to their size and weight).


A power assist chair looks like your standard wheelchair, but built within the wheels are motorized hubs that provide a boost when the wheels are pushed. There’s a small battery pack that powers the motors. When we travel, we tend to explore and put a lot of mileage on the chair within a day, hence the need for the extra batteries.

So once my wife got back in her chair she hit a button to engage the motors. We heard a strange sound, and she noticed the power delivery was not what it usually was. But these systems can get finicky sometimes and often minor bugs just work themselves out, so didn’t think much of it as we made our way to the connecting flight.


We arrived in Cancun, and luckily the doorway was big enough to get the chair through without a problem. My wife got in the chair and started to roll. On our way through customs and to the baggage claim we noticed that the power delivery system was randomly turning off. At the time, we just chalked it up to being stuck in the crowds—sometimes when the chair is not in motion the system turns off to conserve energy.

After getting our bags we contracted a taxi service to get us to Playa del Carmen. We were excited to finally escape the northeastern cold, to relax and enjoy ourselves on a beautiful Mexican beach. When she got into her chair, we expected to hear the normal “beep” that indicates the chair is ready to go.


Instead, the right wheel jerked violently and we heard a loud thump! She turned the chair off and back on again. Thump! So we tried a different battery.

I disconnected and reconnected the power terminals. Same result. The chair wasn’t responding to battery power.


When a power-assisted chair is immobilized it is twice as hard to push. She tried to move forward without power while I handled the bags. Then we heard what sounded like the grinding of gears from the right wheel.


Slowly and painfully, we made it to the hotel.

What You Do When You Realize The Wheelchair’s Broken

I got the chair to the room and try to investigate, but there was no obvious way to access the motorized hub’s internals to see what was wrong—in short, nothing we can do to fix it. Understandably, my wife was very upset.


Imagine for a moment you were going on a vacation. You planned on exploring around, seeing the sights, doing some shopping, and enjoying new kinds of food. Now imagine that during your flight, due to some negligence or carelessness on behalf of the airline, both of your legs got broken.

Our only hope at that point was to find some type of replacement wheelchair. Some hotels keep hospital-style chairs around in case a guest needs to use them, but our hotel didn’t have any. However, they did know of a place in town that rented chairs. The woman at the desk gave them a call, but no answer—not surprising since it was 8 p.m. on Christmas Eve. But then she told us that the Red Cross is open 24 hours a day, and perhaps they have a chair we can use. At last, we got a good break—a Red Cross did have a chair and it was only a few blocks away.


At least, that’s what I was told. After fumbling around the neighborhood for a while trying to speak what little Spanish I knew, a cab driver told me the Red Cross was no longer in that part of the city. I returned to the hotel defeated.

By then it was 9 p.m. and we were both tired and hungry. We decided to push the broken chair into town and find something to eat. The grinding of the broken motor echoed off the walls, rumbling like a dirt bike. People turned and stare at the noise coming from the crippled wheelchair.


It’s bad enough being stared at just because you’re disabled. Now we were drawing even more unwanted attention. No one said a thing, but their faces said enough.

The Red Cross Will Hook You Up With A Replacement

The next day I was able to contact the wheelchair rental company. The man informed me that all the chairs had been rented out by the local hotels due to all the travelers in town for the holiday. My only option was that red Red Cross on the other side of town.


After a not-cheap cab ride there, a woman at the counter informed me that they only had one chair available and that I needed to leave a deposit of 500 pesos. She pulled a piece of blank computer paper from the copier and scribbled out a “rental agreement.” I immediately noticed that the hard foam wheels on the folding hospital chair were worn to about a half-inch or so and the rubber was peeling away from the sidewalls. It wasn’t ideal, but it was better than us being stuck in our hotel room the whole time. And finally, some good luck: the chair fit perfectly in the trunk of the old Nissan Tsuru taxi cab I hired.

Relieved, I made my way back to the hotel.

For about a week I pushed my wife around town in the beater rental chair. We enjoyed the beach and ate some killer fish tacos. After three days, the dry rotted tires began to separate from the wheels, so I had to continuously reapply tape just to keep the tires on. But we made it work.


I contacted the airline upon returning to the U.S. After several emails and phone calls, they agreed to fix the chair and replace its very expensive power assisted wheels. They also offered us a $500 credit towards another flight.

Know Your Rights, Don’t Get Screwed

In the end, the airline did the right thing, but it doesn’t change the fact that this whole incident could have been prevented. If you or your traveling companion is a wheelchair user, here is what you should know according to the Air Carrier Access Act.

(2) In an aircraft in which a closet or other approved stowage area is provided in the cabin for passengers’ carry-on items, of a size that will accommodate a folding, collapsible, or break-down wheelchair, the carrier shall designate priority stowage space, as described below, for at least one folding, collapsible, or break-down wheelchair in that area.

A individual with a disability who takes advantage of a carrier offer of the opportunity to pre-board the aircraft may stow his or her wheelchair in this area, with priority over the carry-on items brought onto the aircraft by other passengers enplaning at the same airport.

A individual with a disability who does not take advantage of a carrier offer of the opportunity to preboard may use the area to stow his or her wheelchair on a first-come, first-served basis along with all other passengers seeking to stow carry-on items in the area.


If the chair is collapsible and there is room in the cabin, the airline is required to store the chair in the cabin if you request them to do so. Of course, the caveat here is there must be enough room in the cabin. Often the flight attendants have a closet for their items, if the chair can fit in the closet it takes priority over the crew or other passengers.

I strongly suggest that you notify your airline ahead of time that you are traveling with adaptive equipment. When you get to the airport, do your best to educate the crew as to what kind of equipment you are using. The more they know about it, the less likely they are to break it. Tell them if they have a question about how to operate or move your equipment to ask you.


Finally, make sure you pack tools and spare parts if practical. We always travel with a second set of tire-tubes, an Allen key kit, and a good multi-tool.

No one should let their disability hold them back from seeing the world. Just make sure you take some extra precautions to ensure your adaptive equipment lands safely as well.