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Amid this summer’s travel chaos, airline passengers with disabilities are increasingly abandoned, receiving damaged wheelchairs, or facing life-threatening injuries amid the latest airline chaos. Here’s why.

Reports of complaints from passengers with disabilities have increased a 108%, according to the Department of Transportation.

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Passengers are reporting widespread cases of delays, cancellations, and misplaced luggage since the resumption of air travel.

People who rely on wheelchairs are caught up in the confusion and may suffer serious injuries or even lose their wheelchairs.

According to data from the Department of Transportation, the number of complaints from passengers with disabilities has increased by 128 percent.

Amy Scherer has been flying in a wheelchair for the past 30 years, and during her most recent round trip from North Carolina to Georgia, she encountered a level of chaos and ineptitude from airline staff that she had never encountered before.

She had trouble boarding her flight in June because she needed a wheelchair and the plane’s aisle was too narrow for a standard wheelchair. It culminated with Scherer needing assistance from a member of the cleaning crew to get back onto an aisle chair so she could exit the plane.

When she sees that the staff doesn’t know how to help Scherer, “she’s literally in her cleaning outfit, cleaning the seats,” Scherer told Insider. She then sets down her cleaning tools and offers her assistance, saying, “I’ve seen them do this, I’ll help you.”

Scherer, an attorney for the National Disability Rights Network who was born with cerebral palsy, is hardly the first person with a disability to have trouble with an airline. But as air travel makes a comeback, persistent staff shortages — from TSA agents to flight attendants and pilots — are causing a nightmare stew of missed flights, canceled routes, and misplaced luggage. Wheelchair users are the newest victims.

Even though the Air Carrier Access Act of 1986 banned discrimination against passengers with disabilities, wheelchair users continue to report ongoing issues: Despite federal law mandating proper training, airlines frequently damage or lose passengers’ chairs, leave passengers stranded in the plane or at the airport, and cause serious injuries to others.

According to a recent article in Insider, a woman who uses a wheelchair due to fibromyalgia and lupus has been delayed multiple times on her travels, including being stranded at the airport with other people who rely on wheelchairs. She arrived 14 hours after she was supposed to.

Wheelchair assistance at airports, along with specially trained personnel to provide it, is mandated by federal law. However, Scherer and many others like her are encountering a different reality.

I’ve never had the impression that the staff didn’t know what they were doing or didn’t take their jobs seriously until now, Scherer said.

Although the airline industry is showing signs of improvement, a full recovery has not yet occurred. Over 580,000 domestic flights occurred in March 2022, according to data published by the Bureau of Transportation in May. Roughly 86 percent of all March 2019 flights.

The number of complaints filed against airlines, including by passengers with disabilities, has, however, increased to levels not seen since before the pandemic.

The number of passenger complaints about service provided to disabled passengers increased by 108% between May 2018 (76 complaints) and July 2018 (158 complaints), according to data released by the Department of Transportation.

Paralyzed Veterans of America President Charlie Brown was shocked to see a rise in complaints against airlines in 2018. “Is it possible that things could get any worse for you guys? There needs to be a shift in this.”

Brown, who has used a wheelchair since 1986 after suffering a cervical neck fracture while serving in the US Marine Corps, knows firsthand the negative effects of dealing with untrained personnel.

In an attempt to move Brown from his wheelchair to an aisle chair, two employees dropped him, injuring his tailbone.

To begin with, the veteran felt “mostly embarrassed.” According to him, it occurred while people were still in the vicinity of the jetway. Nonetheless, Brown realized that he had begun to sweat during the flight to Dallas, which was highly unusual for someone with a spinal cord injury.

Brown explained, “I sweat not from heat but from injuries.” “I sensed trouble was brewing.”

Brown claimed that he returned home to find blood on the seat cushion. Being the “stubborn marine” that he is, he initially ignored it. However, the veteran went to the hospital after experiencing increasing pain and was diagnosed with osteomyelitis, a severe infection that attacks and softens the bones. The infection had worked its way up his spine from his tailbone.

After a month of bed rest, Brown finally underwent life-saving surgery. When the surgery was over, he continued to take antibiotics for another six weeks.

Brown claimed he had no recourse after waiting so long to report the incident at the airport.

According to Insider, Paralyzed Veterans of America’s associate executive director of government relations Heather Ansley said that passengers have six months to file a complaint with the Department of Transportation, which would then be sent to the airlines.

Many travelers, however, are unaware that they can lodge a complaint with the DOT. Ansley claims that airlines respond to the “vast majority” of customer complaints by installing smaller windows.

There have been cases similar to this one, Brown said, where wheelchair users contracted life-threatening infections after receiving minor injuries during or after a flight.

Former attorney Joshua Markowitz claims that in 2021, disabled rights activist Engracia Figueroa’s $30,000 motorized wheelchair, which was custom-made to fit her body, was “flattened like a pancake” by United Airlines.

Markowitz claims that the manual wheelchair she was made to wait in during her time at the airport reopened an existing wound.

Figueroa, 51, passed away about three months later due to complications from an ulcer. In a lawsuit against United Airlines, Markowitz, on behalf of Figueroa’s surviving siblings, claims that the incident caused Figueroa’s death.

For a quadriplegic, “a wheelchair is not just their only tool to be able to function normally; it’s an irreplaceable tool,” he said. “One cannot merely state, “The chairs are broken; here is a replacement chair,” and expect an appropriate response. That was the final straw, giving her yet another chair.”

It’s been a few weeks since the lawsuit was initially filed. United Airlines, according to Markowitz, has requested more time to respond to the lawsuit.

United Airlines declined to comment on an active lawsuit, but a company spokesperson did say that “providing a safe and comfortable journey for all our customers, especially those who require additional assistance or the use of a wheelchair,” was a top priority.

Brown, the PVA president, said, “I was lucky I survived,” after hearing about Figueroa’s plight. “When I was flying, that was the worst injury I’d ever sustained. After that, I never wanted to get on a plane again.”

The industry’s trajectory was already set on a decline in flight quality for those with disabilities, Ansley said, so the pandemic only made things worse.

She claimed that planes are significantly more crowded than in the past. With fewer passengers on board, it became “routine” to move an inconvenienced passenger from coach to first class.

The time it takes for an airplane to land and take off again, known as the turn time, is also under increased scrutiny.

“The more time it spends on the ground, the less money it makes. It must be in the air and en route to its next stop as soon as possible, “The aforementioned Ansley remarked. All of these factors have made it more difficult for passengers with disabilities to board a plane safely, as they may need extra time to load their devices.

Disability rights activists and organizations have not given up their fight for more inclusive aviation policies and better accommodations for passengers with special needs.

The Department of Transportation published the Airline Passengers with Disabilities Bill of Rights on July 26. This document details the ten basic rights of disabled airline passengers. The Air Carrier Access Act is not amended in any way by this.

Legal protections for people with disabilities were formalized by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ACAA), but policy experts like Ansley argue that the law does not go far enough.

Claire Stanley, a public policy analyst for the National Disability Rights Network, said, “It was a great piece of legislation in the ’80s, but it’s shown a low of weaknesses over the last 40 years.” “A makeover is in order.”

According to Stanley, the ACAA does include language on accommodations for people with disabilities, but in practice, these provisions are often “lackluster.”

She noted that passengers requiring guide or wheelchair assistance often had to wait for long periods of time at airports, and that those providing such assistance often lacked adequate training.

Stanley and Ansley served on the committee that advised the Transportation Secretary on the Air Carrier Access Act. The committee delivered its list of about 25 suggestions in February to enhance the experience of disabled airline passengers.

They are broken down into distinct groups based on factors like how they handle ticketing and seating, how they store mobility aids, how helpful they are at airports and on planes, and how well they train their staff. There is a wide range of suggestions, from providing “frequent” training to airlines to ensuring that wheelchairs and scooters are stored safely.

According to Ansley, the DOT has been studying the recommendations and determining which organizations, such as airlines, will be responsible for carrying them out. All the suggestions were things that the vast majority of people could agree on, Ansley said. So, “what you see in the recommendations are those that have broad support.”

Stanley omitted universally designed aircrafts from his list of “pie in the sky” ambitions.

Airplane aisles aren’t the only places where a wheelchair can’t be pushed down the aisle. Wheelchair access to the restroom is not required on a single-aisle plane. According to Ansley, only about 5% of single-aisle planes have a wheelchair-accessible restroom.

“I can’t go to the bathroom when I’m in the air,” Brown, president of PVA, said. “For me, this is not an appropriate option. As a result, I am experiencing discrimination on my travels that no other passenger would.”

The Department of Transportation (DOT) released a proposed rule to make restrooms more accessible for people with disabilities in March.

The Department of Transportation warned that some travelers avoid having to urinate during flights by deliberately dehydrating themselves. “There can be a wide range of negative health consequences from engaging in these behaviors. Some passengers may feel embarrassed or uneasy because other travelers use adult diapers or catheters. However, there are those who refuse to fly in a wheelchair for any reason.”

Ansley elaborated by saying that it would be ideal if people who use wheelchairs could bring their own wheelchairs on airplanes. However, airlines typically view this as a decrease in available seats for sale.

Other, less involved modifications can also be made to increase an airplane’s accessibility.

Making a cutout at the front of the plane for wheelchair users to sit in would solve the problem of having to move to an aisle seat. And that would mean never having to put anyone in the position Scherer or Brown did in training.

Stanley remarked, “You’re always going to have problems unless you design airplanes with accessibility in mind from the getgo.”