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Passengers travel on business
Airlines can’t be trusted with disabled people’s wheelchairs

Airlines can’t be trusted with disabled people’s wheelchairs

Passengers travel on business

As the summer travel season approaches Lucy Webster asks why it so often means broken mobility aids and personal humiliation

Everyone is off the plane, but I am still in my seat, trying to catch someone’s eye. My PA, who provides all my care when I travel, has disappeared in search of my wheelchair, and I am getting increasingly anxious the longer she is gone. Because that means something is wrong.

Eventually she comes back, shaking her head in exasperation. She’s been trying to reattach the motor and battery to my foldable travel chair, but she can’t. Somewhere between where I left it at the plane door in London and where it’s been returned to me in Portugal it’s been bent so out of shape that the pieces won’t fit together again. Which means that, for the whole of my much-looked-forward-to holiday with friends, I am unable to move myself. Instead, I am completely reliant on others. I still enjoy myself – disabled people know how to make the most of things – but every time I go to move and find I can’t, I’m reminded that, for airlines, disabled people are still second-class citizens.

This isn’t the worst-case scenario – a broken travel chair and ruined holiday pale in comparison to what can happen when an airline destroys a highly specialised mobility aid. Indeed, we saw the worst-case scenario play out not so long ago. Prominent disability activist Engracia Figueroa’s wheelchair was so badly damaged in 2021 that she was forced to use a temporary one for months while fighting for United Airlines to replace her $30,000 chair. The temporary chair was so unsuited to her needs that she developed severe pressure sores, which became infected, ultimately leading to her untimely death at the age of 51. 

These horrifying events don’t seem to have changed anything. In just the month of August 2022, airlines in the US reported mishandling or damaging more than 800 wheelchairs and other mobility devices. Every single one of these incidents represents a potentially serious health risk to a disabled person. But even when the consequences aren’t medical in nature, each broken wheelchair belongs to someone who cannot work, travel, go out or get out of bed in a safe, independent way. And each story of one person’s ruined trip puts another disabled person off travelling – maybe altogether. The destruction of wheelchairs becomes simply another way to limit disabled people’s lives and the opportunities available to us. And it keeps happening.

The problem is hardly new. But thanks to the campaigning efforts of disabled people, it is finally in the spotlight. When Sophie Morgan, a disabled TV presenter and advocate, had her specially made £8,000 chair and Batec power attachment destroyed on a recent flight from Los Angeles to London, she decided enough was enough. 

Sophie Morgan had her £8,000 wheelchair ruined

She had checked the two pieces in separately, but staff had attached them together – incorrectly. This meant that when she got off the long flight – using a deeply uncomfortable and unsuitable airplane aisle chair – her chair and Batec were lying on their side, unusable. 

“The only thing to do was physically prize them apart, banging it, crashing it, standing on it,” Morgan says, because in that state she couldn’t even sit in her chair. Getting the two pieces apart caused so much damage that, although the Batec has been swiftly repaired, the frame of the wheelchair is beyond salvation. 

“I have to replace the whole thing,” she says, stressing how lucky she feels that she had a back-up wheelchair waiting for her at home. Otherwise, she knows she would have had to use an airport-issued chair, with all the attendant risk of pressure sores and serious health problems. Indeed, because she wasn’t even sure if she would even be able to use her own chair to get home, she found the experience “emotionally distressing” as well as “physically inconvenient”. 

“I think that’s why people are scared to fly,” she says. “The risk is not outweighed by the reward … Yes, it might go right. But the fact that it does go so wrong weighs on our mind so much that it makes you terrified to fly, because of the consequences – in the short term, the inconvenience of physical and emotional stress; but the longer term consequences are that you just feel nervous. It’s like you feel like you’re never going to forget that experience; you’re never going to get over it.”

Morgan, like many disabled and non-disabled people, has to fly for work. “I want to be able to say: ‘No, that’s it, I’ve had enough, I’m not doing this again.’ But I can’t. The analogy I keep using is it’s like an abusive relationship. Even though they keep screwing you over, continue abusing you and making you feel like shit and then blaming you for being the inconvenience – making you feel like it’s your fault because you’re the wheelchair user – you just have to keep going back because you’ve got no other choice. You’ve got no other way.”

While her broken wheelchair elicits a strong sense of déjà vu, Morgan does think something feels different this time round: the reaction to her story. Since posting about the incident on her social media channels, Morgan has appeared on the BBC and ITV, been featured in newspapers, and gone on to launch a formal campaign with Disability Rights UK and the SNP MP Marion Fellows. And she’s taken the issue international, teaming up with Canadian activist Maayan Ziv to take the issue of accessible air travel to the influential South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas. There is a strong grassroots element too: hundreds of people have used the #RightsOnFlights on Instagram and Twitter to share their own stories of discrimination on airlines – from being unable to access the loo to being left on board for hours after landing to, of course, the ubiquitous tales of broken and destroyed mobility aids. And people are noticing.

“It’s like an abusive relationship. They keep screwing you over, making you feel like shit and then blaming you”

I ask Morgan why things feel different this time round. It’s a question she’s asking herself, too. “Is it because there’s so many of us on social media and finally there’s a voice that actually they can’t avoid? They have to listen? Is that something to do with it? 

“I mean, for me, I think because I have the platform I do. It’s the first time that I’ve actually been able to use that platform to talk about these issues, you know. I’ve been permitted to talk about it. And I think that having a platform like that has happened without contriving it. You know, it’s not like I planned this, it’s just that enough was enough. And they can’t ignore me, because I’m not going to let them.”

The campaign centres around two broad areas: short-term goals and long-term ambitions. The first set is more UK-focused, the second hopes for global reach. In the UK, Morgan and Disability Rights UK have worked with Fellows to co-ordinate an open letter to the prime minister, urging him to give the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) more powers to fine airlines when things go wrong, including when mobility aids are damaged.

The CAA itself argues that it needs these powers. Anna Bowles, the authority’s head of consumer issues, says the ability to impose fines would “allow us to take faster action when appropriate and bring our powers in line with other sectoral regulators”. The hope is that the open letter acts as a catalyst for making this change happen.

Long-term, though, campaigners are demanding a wholesale reimagination of how disabled people fly. The core problem, Morgan and others argue, is that planes are the only form of transport where disabled people are obliged to part with their mobility devices. We’ve been travelling in our own wheelchairs on trains and buses, and in taxis and cars, for decades, yet the airline industry retains antiquated designs and policies, as if by default. 

“There should be a wheelchair accessible space and a wheelchair accessible toilet on every plane,” Morgan says. “And that’s not impossible. I won’t put up with anyone saying it is. I’ve spoken to loads of experts who say it can be done. It’s about having enough will to do it.” 

Engineers and campaigners have been working on this solution for years. There is no shortage of plans and prototypes, which means “it very much feels like this is an attitudinal barrier that we’re fighting,” Morgan says. “It’s not physically impossible. Maybe we can’t retrofit every plane with an accessible design, but maybe from now on every aeroplane that ever gets built has to have a wheelchair space.”

I asked the industry’s representative bodies why their members haven’t yet made this change. Airlines UK, which represents the airlines, and the Aerospace, Defence and Security Group, on behalf of the aircraft manufacturers, both said that it was the other’s members’ responsibility. Pushed to clarify the division of responsibility, the ADS Group told me that manufacturers would need to design wheelchair spaces for each type of aircraft, and seek regulatory approval for them, but that it would then be down to airlines to order new planes with such seats included. In short, there seems to be a chicken-and-egg problem stopping the industry from moving towards accessibility for everyone.

The availability of a wheelchair space on board would have a transformational effect on air travel for disabled people. Being separated from our mobility devices is the cause of almost all the stress and humiliation we face when we fly. After all, it is the equivalent of demanding someone remove their legs in order to board. Not only would remaining in our chairs prevent them from being flung around and tumbled on to conveyor belts by staff, we would no longer be manhandled by strangers on to the plane, be abandoned onboard after landing, or sit in seats that do us harm (the lack of pressure relief in particular can cause serious problems). As Morgan points out, one of the huge benefits would be that those who are currently unable to fly because they cannot get out of their wheelchairs would be able to travel for work and pleasure, just like everyone else.

“Being able to fly in my own chair would open up travel in a way that’s hard to imagine. I could travel with dignity”

Even for me, someone who can easily transfer on to an aeroplane seat (with a little assistance), being able to fly in my own chair would open up travel in a way that’s hard to imagine. For one, I would be able to go on holiday in my customised powerchair, rather than the one-size-fits-all, (marginally) cheaper foldable one I forked out for to protect my main one. I would be much more comfortable and able throughout the whole trip. Perhaps even more importantly, I wouldn’t spend the entire outbound flight riddled with anxiety about whether a broken wheelchair is going to ruin my holiday or even send me straight back home. I would be able to travel with dignity, and to actually enjoy the start of my break. I can scarcely imagine it, but this isn’t a fairy-tale pipe dream. This is a change that airlines could start to make today, if only they wanted to.

If they don’t and this change doesn’t come, Morgan says, “airlines are in effect banning wheelchairs and wheelchair users. It really gets into that intersection of disability rights and human rights. This is a human right. And everyone needs to travel; it’s just part of life now. So we have to do something about this discrimination. It’s as simple as that.”

Lucy Webster is a writer, political journalist and disability advocate.

This piece was taken from Echoes, the forthcoming edition of Tortoise Quarterly, our short book of long reads. It will be published in early June – keep an eye on the Tortoise shop to buy a copy at a special member price.