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Empowering Change: Ensuring Wheelchair Accessibility in Air Travel

Empowering Change: Ensuring Wheelchair Accessibility in Air Travel

by Isabella Duarte-Crespo

As a 16-year-old disabled entrepreneur and passionate traveler, I recently faced a disheartening experience during a flight with American Airlines and British Airways. My wheelchair was lost for 15 days, shedding light on a critical issue within the airline industry.

In this article, I aim to raise awareness about the frequent instances where airlines mishandle wheelchairs and other mobility aids, impacting the independence and travel experiences of disabled individuals. It's time to take action and prioritize the safe and timely transportation of mobility aids.

I am committed to being an advocate for disabled travelers, and I plan to write an open letter to airline executives to collaborate on effective solutions. Together, we can create a future where accessibility is paramount, ensuring that no one faces the distressing situation of being without their mobility aid while traveling.

The Problem with Accessibility in Airlines

This article aims to educate the general public about the several instances in which airlines have damaged or lost the wheelchairs that wheelchair users depend on to live and travel, and to offer solutions for these wheelchair users who find themselves stranded without their mobility aid. My situation is far from the first and it most definitely won’t be the last, but something must be done. Wheelchairs and other mobility aids are treated as any other piece of luggage by airlines. As I learned during this situation, this made the procedure for locating my wheelchair unnecessarily complicated and made it even harder to convey my genuine need for my mobility aid to the airline customer service. My hope is to catch the attention of other disabled travelers and offer my advice on how to prevent the loss of your wheelchair and how to navigate the unfortunate loss of your wheelchair in a foreign country.

How my Wheelchair was lost for 15 days in a Foreign country

My name is Isabella Duarte-Crespo, a a 16-year-old disabled business owner who was left without a wheelchair during our family vacation in Rome, Italy for more than two weeks. Due to my genetic disorder, Spina Bifida, I have limited mobility and can only walk or stand for a handful of minutes before the pain in my legs becomes unbearable. This is why I depend on my wheelchair, especially during vacations.

The only reason I was ever able to get my wheelchair back was due to my amazing mother who, on a whim, decided to put airtags on both my wheelchair and our suitcases. Needless to say, I will never complain about her paranoia again. It was only due to the airtag that I realized my wheelchair was left behind in London while my family and I had already arrived in Rome, Italy. Though we had requested that my wheelchair be sent to my final destination in Rome, it was left at the gate in London Terminal 5.

The reason why the wheelchair was lost

There are numerous reasons why my wheelchair was left in the wrong country. 

  • The trip included a connecting flight from Miami to London to Rome, which by itself is a risk of losing a piece of luggage and or a wheelchair.
  • Miscommunication between airlines.  I can only assume the loss of my wheelchair was due to a miscommunication between American Airlines, which I used to fly from Miami to London, and British Airways, which I used to fly from London to Rome.
  •  In addition, my wheelchair was improperly tagged. It was tagged with a “return to the gate” tag by American Airlines rather than a luggage tag to indicate the wheelchair was not going to the gate but rather to the final destination. 
Airport  wheelchair assistance   Airport wheelchair assistance gate tags

No matter the cause, we needed a solution to this lost wheelchair fiasco before my cruise departed from Rome just 3 days later.

How to Prevent the loss or damage of your Mobility Aid when Travelling 

  1. AirTags: Be like my mom and keep an airtag or other tracking device on your mobility aid! This way, you can keep track of it while you travel instead of being kept in the dark.
  2. Tagging: Always double-check the tag your wheelchair is fitted with to make sure it is the correct one. There are certain wheelchair tags that tell the airline employees to unload your wheelchair at the gate. In my case, my wheelchair was given this gate tag instead of the luggage tag needed to arrive at the final destination as part of the luggage. 
  3. Take Pictures: It is a great idea to take a picture of your mobility aid before it is whisked away by airline employees. This makes it easier to identify your wheelchair if it's lost and allows you to provide proof if your wheelchair arrives damaged.
Wheelchair   Wheelchair after

    What to do if your Wheelchair or Mobility Aid is Lost

    1. Accessibility & Assistance: Thankfully, nearly every airport is required to offer assistance to disabled travelers. But it gets more complicated when you need assistance or a wheelchair at a tourist attraction or hotel. Always do research prior to visiting a museum or attraction to check if it is accessible, has elevators, and has wheelchairs available for visitors.
    2. Make some Calls: Immediately file a claim at the airport as soon as you arrive and call the airline you traveled with to kickstart the process of locating your missing wheelchair. My parents called every day and had to wait hours on hold with the customer service so trust me when I say it will be frustrating.
    3. Rental Wheelchairs: In the worst case scenario, where I found myself, is when you need a wheelchair in a public place or attraction and none are available. The best course of action is to research wheelchairs or walkers available for rent in your city. Though unfortunately, it can take several days for the wheelchair to be delivered. In my case, we had to wait 3 days for the wheelchair to arrive despite explicitly asking for next-day delivery.

    Rental Wheelchair

    It is ridiculous that we are forced to prepare for these types of scenarios but, unfortunately, it is the reality of traveling for disabled people and people with limited mobility. I am working to resolve the problems the disabled community encounters while traveling by writing an open letter to British Airways and American Airlines. Through our collaborative efforts, we can reduce the number of mobility aid-related incidents and make the transportation of mobility aids simpler. I am striving for a more accessible future so that we aren't forced to adapt to an inaccessible world.

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