When Boston resident Colleen Flanagan arrived in Washington, D.C., on Monday evening, she got the news every wheelchair user dreads: Her power wheelchair was badly damaged during her flight.
“It wouldn't power on because the whole joystick was smashed. There was no power switch anymore and the whole side is kind of dented in,” Flanagan said.
She had to wait three hours for a loaner chair that doesn’t fit her properly, and she doesn’t know how long it will take until her wheelchair is repaired. The incident left her in tears. “There's also that emotional part of like, wait a minute, you owe me. You literally stole my independence, my plans,” she said.
Damaged wheelchairs while flying is a frustrating yet too common problem for people with disabilities, advocates say, and the problem is not getting any better.
“This is an issue people with disabilities deal with on a constant basis,” said Rhoda Gibson, co-founder of disability rights group MassADAPT, who was traveling with Flanagan from Boston.
Airlines damage thousands of wheelchairs every year. According to the most recent data from the Department of Transportation, in January alone, U.S. airlines reported mishandling 871 wheelchairs or scooters, or about 1.6% of those taken on domestic flights.
JetBlue — which Flanagan took to Washington — had the second highest incidence of mishandling in the latest federal data, at 5.8% of wheelchairs and scooters being mishandled. That’s about five times as much as other domestic airlines. Only Spirit Airlines, at 7.19%, had a higher rate of damaged wheelchairs.
“A major corporation just can't destroy somebody's wheelchair. There's no excuse at this point. People have been flying in wheelchairs for a long time,” said Bill Henning, executive director of the Boston Center for Independent Living.
"This chair was destroyed. It really just stuns you because you lose all mobility."-Colleen Flanagan
Gibson and Flanagan were traveling to Washington to meet with Sen. Bob Casey, sponsor of the Better Care Better Jobs Act, to advocate for more funding for home and community-based services for people with disabilities. Flanagan is the outreach and engagement specialist in the Boston Mayor’s Commission on Disabilities.
“Obviously, it's not breaking news to any disabled person that an airline can break a chair. It's not even the first time it's happened to me,” Flanagan said. “But I mean, this chair was destroyed. It really just stuns you because you lose all mobility.”
In a video recorded by Flanagan on the jet bridge, airline staff can be seen apologizing as she, in tears, says, “I can see that the whole thing is completely smashed to smithereens.” She tried to turn the chair on, but the power switch was too damaged.
Flanagan was then brought to the baggage services area, where she waited for more than three hours for a loaner chair to be brought in from Baltimore. During that wait, she was stuck in the airline’s transfer chair, unable to use the bathroom or move around on her own.
“You're stuck and you don't know what's going to happen next, and your most prized possession is completely damaged,” Flanagan said.
Replacing her chair would not be an easy task. Flanagan is three feet tall and her wheelchair was custom-made for her. Its high-tech features allowed her to elevate her seat up and down while working, and tilt backward to stay comfortable while commuting. The loaner wheelchair doesn’t have those features and could be damaging to her. The seat is too big, forcing her to sit in an awkward position. She fears she might fall off if she hits a bump.
“So I won’t be able to use any of those functions I need to, to not just be functional, but to reduce pain,” she said.
Flanagan expects to wait at least six or eight weeks for her chair to be repaired or replaced.
Advocates say that a near monopoly among wheelchair repair companies and bureaucracy has made it difficult for users to get their chairs fixed quickly.
“We have people go nine, ten months, 15 months while their wheelchair is being repaired,” Henning said. “The market, the companies building wheelchairs, has really narrowed down. It's a complex issue.”
Overall, JetBlue provided her with $280 in airline credit and paid for the loaner chair. But the real cost was much higher, Flanagan said.
“Now I have to take taxis instead of the public transportation like I had planned, and I'm going to need more physical assistance doing things because I can't be as independent in this chair,” she said.
"While we know it is not a replacement, we have provided a loaner wheelchair to the customer while we work on expediting necessary repairs," JetBlue said in a statement to GBH News about the incident. "We understand the importance of mobility devices, and we have recently implemented additional training for handling these devices, including wheelchairs. We also continue to engage our business partners who handle these devices to ensure they too have the tools they need to best assist our customers."
On Twitter, JetBlue told Flanagan that they are working on the issue but they don’t have a timeline for getting her wheelchair fixed. They didn’t respond to her request to reimburse her for Lyfts that she had to take while in Washington.
We currently don't a have time frame, however, we can assure you our crewmembers are working on your request and will reach out to you with any further updates. We appreciate your continued patience.— JetBlue (@JetBlue) April 19, 2023
Flanagan is not sure exactly where the damage to her chair happened. Airline staff told her that the wheelchair fell out of the cargo area of the plane when the doors opened. Regardless of where the damage happened, it was obvious to Flanagan that the chair had not been securely tied down.
Gibson says that airline staff need to be better trained at handling wheelchairs.
“They can do so much damage if they don’t know what they’re doing when they move a chair,” Gibson said. Gibson’s wheelchair was in the front of the plane and Flanagan’s was in the back. Her chair was tilted and the headrest had been taken off.
“My chair has been damaged but not destroyed,” Gibson said. “Toss a coin — it could have been my chair in the back.”
In 2018, Congress told airlines they had to make flying better for passengers with disabilities, and reporting on incidents started in 2019.
But advocates say more needs to be done. “This is such a misunderstood systemic problem that one piece of legislation wouldn't be enough. But we’ve got to start somewhere,” Flanagan said.
Locally, the Boston Center for Independent Living has joined with other advocacy groups to push for legislation like the Wheelchair Warranty Act, which would aim to strengthen protections for wheelchair users and reduce wait times for repairs.
In the meantime, wheelchair users like Flanagan are left to weigh the risks with the benefits of travel.
Flanagan says it will probably be a while before she gets on a plane again.
“I probably will fly again and take my chances just because, I mean, if you don't take the shot, you're not going to get new experiences and explore,” she said. “And I love traveling.”
This story has been updated to include comment from JetBlue.