Kristen Parisi went through the ultimate nightmare of a traveler reliant on mobility equipment: an airline losing your wheelchair. Here’s what she learned to make sure it never happens again.
Traveling for wheelchair users evokes dread beyond the usual travel woes. For us, traveling poses much more than just worries about lost luggage, missed flights or having — gasp — a middle seat on the wing of the plane. No, for us, the biggest fear is having our wheelchair damaged or lost.
I have been a wheelchair user for 28 years and fly frequently, but my worst nightmare came true this July as I was flying JetBlue from San Francisco to Syracuse, New York, via JFK. I landed in Syracuse to discover that my wheelchair was nowhere to be found. The airline’s only guess was that my wheelchair had been left behind at JFK. Wanting to move things along, they put me in an airport wheelchair that was much too large and pushed me through the airport. As my feet dragged on the ground, and people stared at me, I cried at the realization that I was without my legs and didn’t know when I’d get them back.
Luckily I was returning to my hometown and my parents were on their way to get me, so I knew a lifeline was coming. The next steps were to locate the chair and if needed, find a “high quality loaner” until my chair could be returned. But as anyone reading this knows, borrowing a chair isn’t like borrowing a car. You can’t just get into one that’s not yours. Not having the right chair can limit everything from being able to drive, roll around comfortably and go to the bathroom. My parents had an old wheelchair at their home, but even that did not provide my usual ease of getting around.
To make a long day short, it turned out that several people at JFK had made gross errors, but my chair was returned to me … 10 hours later. It was flown to Rochester, then driven to my parents’ house in Utica, approximately two and a half hours away. Although I was promised the chair would be a top priority, it was delivered after other pieces of “luggage.” It was 10 hours of stress, phone calls, and a diminished ability to be independent.
What I Learned
The whole ordeal left me with a new appreciation for my wheelchair.
I have some thoughts that will hopefully help you as you fly:
1. If you have a collapsible manual chair, request your chair be kept in the cabin of the plane — they cannot tell you no if the plane holds 100 passengers or more.
2. File a complaint with the DOT and the airline if anything happens to your assistive device.
3. Request to speak with the certified accessibility officer at the airport you’re at, as well as their direct supervisor.
4. Document everything, especially as it’s happening. And request continued phone calls with the accessibility officer throughout the process. They will try to pass you off to multiple third party vendors but staying in direct contact with the airline is most important.
5. Follow up. The airline will try to write you off by providing you with a refund, but remember they’re concerned about lawsuits and bad PR. Staying on them and demanding better from the American Association of Airport Executives could lead to meaningful change.
It’s scary to put your device in someone else’s hands, and what happened to me still happens too frequently, but I don’t want that to dissuade someone from air travel.
My final piece of advice: trust your gut. I had a gut feeling from before I boarded my flight in San Francisco that something would go wrong with my chair. I wish I had been more vigilant when I was brushed off by airline staff.