How to Handle Airline Damage to Wheelchairs or other DMEs

Damage Happens

According to monthly DOT reports, 1-2% of wheelchairs and scooters are damaged, mishandled, or lost during the flight process. And that percentage fluctuates quite a bit depending on the airline–e.g., from January to September 2022, Spirit Airlines had mishandled 5.55% of those flying on it, whereas Delta’s percentage was .6% during that same time period. This, of course, changes year-to-year, and month-to-month, but all airlines are susceptible to damaging equipment. Regardless of the airline, knowing how to handle airline damage to wheelchairs or other DMEs is critical to salvaging a trip and getting you on your way.

I have had several incidents of airlines damaging my scooter, including a complete replacement of my scooter in 2022 due to the extent of the damage. It’s always a stressful and annoying experience, but the resolution process has become smoother and more efficient. And, as with all travel hiccups, the end goal of experiencing new areas of the world is worth the hassle.

Tips for Mitigating Risk of Airline Damage

Nothing is foolproof, but you can take steps to help minimize the risk of damage occurring on your trip:

  • Print out detailed instructions on how to disassemble and/or free-wheel your wheelchair/scooter, and attach those instructions to an obvious place on your wheelchair/scooter.
  • Label any critical components that the baggage handler will find helpful in moving your wheelchair/scooter. This can include the mechanism to free-wheel the scooter/wheelchair, how to fold down a steering column/joystick or seat back, etc.
    • I suggest also labeling any components that should not be touched. This may be items like a joystick on a power wheelchair that won’t help the baggage handler but could be damaged by too much jostling or force applied to it.
  • When you are in the jet way but before boarding the plane (i.e., before doing an aisle chair transfer), speak with the assistance team and/or the baggage handlers in the jet way about all of the features of your wheelchair/scooter.
    • I use this time to explain how to disengage the brake, how to fold the steering column, how to fold the seat back, and how to lock the seat so it won’t swivel.
  • Take a photo of the baggage claim ticket that was given to you when you gate-checked the wheelchair/scooter. This will help you track down your scooter/wheelchair if it gets lost.
  • Take photos of your scooter/wheelchair before boarding the plane. This can be done at home or at the airport, but should be as close as possible to the date of travel. At the airport, I also suggest photographing where the “claim at gate” tag is attached in case the scooter/wheelchair is improperly sent to baggage claim.
    • The airline will look to the gate agent’s visual inspection tag to find any preexisting damage. As such, make sure you agree with any comments regarding damage and, if not, raise the issue to the gate agent. If the agent refuses to change the tag, take photographs of the supposed damage.

How to Handle and Resolve Airline Damage

Despite your best efforts, the airline still manages to damage your wheelchair/scooter. Bummer. I am really, truly sorry. Take a breath. Feel that frustration. Take another breath. Take a moment or two to collect yourself. And now we can (because we have to) shift into problem-solving mode:

  • Always inspect your wheelchair/scooter as soon as you can for any and all damage. This is best done in the jet way, but should be done before you leave the airport.
    • Note: If you leave the airport, there is a risk the airline will claim the damage occurred after your flight and thus not their responsibility.
  • Notify the special assistance team and/or the gate agent working your jet way about the damage. They should contact and/or direct you to the Complaints Resolution Official. Sometimes that person is working in baggage claim, and so you will need to go to them (or them to you, if your wheelchair/scooter is not working or is lost).
  • The CRO will take notes about the damage, your flight number, and some basic information about you and your wheelchair/scooter. They will then likely telephone a third-party contractor (typically Scootaround) to start the process for claiming damage to the wheelchair/scooter. The CRO will likely start the conversation with the contractor, and then let you speak with the contractor to discuss the next steps (e.g., repair, replacement, rental).
  • The contractor will help coordinate finding a rental if you need one. They will also likely send out a repair company to examine the damage and then also repair the damage. At that point, your communications will be with the contractor, and not the airline.
    • The timing and length of this process depends on several factors, including the severity of the damage, where you are, where you are going, and if they have service companies available. If the wheelchair/scooter is inoperable, they will likely try to get a rental as soon as possible. For non-urgent issues, the contractor will typically call you directly the next day and send someone from a repair company to you to evaluate the damage within a few days.
  • Before performing the repairs/replacement, the contractor may require you to sign a waiver of liability form relating to the scope of the damage to the wheelchair/scooter. As with all releases/contracts, you should read this waiver carefully to ensure you are ok with all of the terms.
  • Consider filing a complaint with the DOT. The airlines are also required to self-report their mishandling of wheelchairs/scooters to the DOT.

Knowing how to handle airline damage to wheelchairs or other DMEs will help mitigate the stress and anxiety of travel, and also help you get back on your wheels in time to salvage the trip.

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