Open Letter to British Airways and American Airlines
Dear Robert Isom, CEO of American Airlines, and Sean Doyle, CEO of British Airways,
Good Morning! I am Isabella Duarte-Crespo, a sixteen-year-old disabled business owner who recently flew on a British Airways flight that lost my wheelchair for 15 days. Due to my life-long condition, Spina Bifida, I can't stand or walk for extended periods of time and therefore depend on my wheelchair when traveling. I'm reaching out to explain the recent situation in which both American Airlines and British Airways lost my wheelchair for 15 days and to offer a solution to prevent the damage or loss of mobility aids during flights in the future.
A Frustrating Journey through Air Travel
On June 22nd, my family and I took flight #AA38 with American Airlines from Miami to London, where we then transferred onto our connecting flight #560 with British Airways arriving on June 23rd to our final destination in Rome. When I checked the airtag for the location of my wheelchair, I found that it had not arrived with us. Despite explicitly requesting that my wheelchair be sent directly to Rome, it was left behind at the gate during our layover at London Heathrow Airport. We later realized that the wheelchair was improperly tagged with the wheelchair gate tag instead of the luggage tag needed to locate it in the system, causing further complications in its handling.
The Never-Ending Quest for My Wheelchair
Finding a solution became an unnecessarily frustrating ordeal for my family and me. We had to juggle daily conversations with American Airlines, British Airways, and AviaPartner, the centralized lost luggage service at Rome's airport. Every new call connected us with a different customer service personnel who knew nothing of our case, resulting in repeated explanations and limited progress. The communication between both airlines was nonexistent, making locating my wheelchair even more complicated. Despite my genuine need for my wheelchair, British Airways representatives continuously told us that it could not be located despite the fact that the airtag showed us it was in Terminal 5. Unfortunately, our requests to directly contact personnel at Terminal 5 in London (where the wheelchair was located per the airtag) were denied, which left us no choice but to rely on leaving notes in the British Airways tracking system.
15 Days Without My Wheelchair
Despite our daily calls and reassurances of a swift resolution, it took an excruciating fifteen days to have my wheelchair returned to me on July 7th, the day before my flight back home to Miami. This extended delay caused immense stress and anxiety for me and my family as we continuously checked the airtag for an update on my wheelchair’s location. At one point, we were told to just forget about my wheelchair and buy a new one! Due to my limited mobility, we were forced to resort to renting a wheelchair in Rome, modifying our itinerary, and sacrificing planned activities.
Taking a Stand for Accessibility
While I am disappointed that it took 15 days for the return of my wheelchair, I understand that there were several factors involved and that not one singular party was at fault. Nevertheless, this ordeal inspired me to take action so that no other disabled flier will be forcibly separated from their mobility aid. I was shocked to find that, according to the US Department of Transportation, a staggering 9,350 wheelchairs and scooters were reported lost or damaged between January and October 2022. This amounts to an average of 30.7 incidents per day. I was equally astonished that most reported incidents outside of the U.S. took place at London Heathrow Airport, exactly where my wheelchair had been left. These grave incidents of lost or damaged wheelchairs ruin vacations and strip disabled people of their independence. Mobility aids are more than just another piece of luggage, they are a part of us and should be treated as such. This is why I am reaching out to you, in hopes of collaborating to find a solution.
A Call for Collaboration
As a disabled teenager who is constantly looking for solutions to adapt to an inaccessible world, I’m willing to be the voice for disabled travelers so that we will be treated with the same consideration and respect as any other person. I invite you to join me in creating a solution and marking American Airlines and British Airways as the pioneers of accessibility in travel. In fact, I already began to brainstorm some ideas on how to improve upon the systems and management already put in place.
- Innovative Tagging System: Let's develop a fresh, personalized tagging system exclusively for mobility aids. Alternatively, we can add something as simple as an abbreviation: MA, for "mobility aid" in the existing tracking system.
- It is also possible to improve upon the new wayfinding technology designed to guide travelers through London Heathrow Airport by including the locations of elevators and accessible entrances/exits.
- Also, in the BA app, customers at London Heathrow Airport are notified when their bag arrives and is ready for pickup. Should the same be done for wheelchairs and other mobility aids, it would quell the anxiety that many wheelchair users experience during flights with their mobility aids.
- Dedicated Case Managers: Airlines should assign case managers to directly assist passengers with lost or damaged mobility aids, recognizing their significance and urgency. I assure you that, with the help of a case manager, my situation could have easily been resolved within a day.
Let's bring together wheelchair users, advocates, and airline representatives to work hand-in-hand. We must acknowledge that change is not only necessary but also possible. Airlines can adopt forward-thinking strategies to ensure the safe and timely return of mobility aids. By working together, we can create an inclusive travel environment where no one feels left behind.
Thank you for your time and consideration!
Sincerely, your Future Airline Accessibility Advocate,